The Quartet were on fire from the start, playing Schnittke’s String Quartet No.3 with passion, commitment, authority and utterly convincing musicality. The only flaw in the performance was that just before the end, Veronika Jaruskova broke a string: they had to stop and rewind a page or so before finishing. I would have been very happy to have heard a lot more again, and I can only hope they record this.
Then they played the Shostakovich String Quartet No.8 (a piece I know a great deal better). I have never heard a more emotionally overwhelming performance. To borrow a phrase from another reviewer on another occasion, “they seamlessly drifted between fervor and introspection”. The Pavel Haas seem to sit on stage in a unusually tight semi-circle, and the interaction between them is a wonder to watch and gives such emotional intensity to their playing.
The Shostakovich was perhaps the high point of the evening, even compared with what was to come after the interval, when we heard Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat Op.130 with the Grosse Fuge played as the final movement. Primed as we were by the Schnittke and Shostakovich, this late quartet sounded even stranger, more ‘modern’, than usual, and it was played with the same level of emotional drive. I have perhaps heard more wrenching performances of the Cavatina (from the Lindsays in particular), but then the Pavel Haas launched themselves into Grosse Fuge with more fire and extreme attack than even the Lindsays used to give it. Quite astonishing. The audience was besides itself at the end.