PHQ in astonishing form, again

PHQ at the Gramophone Awards ceremony
PHQ at the Gramophone Awards ceremony

To the Wigmore Hall this morning, to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet play Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet and Beethoven’s “Serioso”. An extraordinary short concert, with the PHQ at their unsurpassed best.

Of recorded performances of the “Rosamunde”, I perhaps know the Lindsays’ the best. This morning, the PHQ’s opening was as yearning, as emotionally charged; but the playing was tauter than the Lindsays’, the dynamic contrasts more marked, with the long first movement always unfolding with such a sense of the structure. I found it very moving indeed.

The opening of the second movement begins with the first violin playing the theme borrowed from Rosamunde. If you look at the score (oh the joys of the internet!), you might be surprised, as I was afterwards, to find that the opening bar, dah-de-de dah dah, is actually written as staccato  notes, albeit slurred staccato notes.  But  Peter Cropper, for the Lindsays, takes the slurring to the point that there is hardly any staccato to be discerned. And this is the way we usually hear the phrase played (compare, for just one example, Corina Belcea in another fine recording). Veronika Jarůšková, however, clearly marked the staccato notes. A few others do, like in the Emerson’s recording: but oddly in their hands the result is strangely flat, while Jarůšková made the phrase dance. And as the phrase returned and returned, initial surprise became very happy acceptance.

The last two movements of the Rosamunde were equally impressive. Compared again with the Lindsays, for example, the PHQ play with even more passion, more dynamics (the fs are indeed unmistakably forte, the pps musical whispers). When called on, Peter Jarusek’s cello drives the music forward almost fiercely, giving an usually weighty texture to the quartet — but this is all intensely controlled in a way that gives their music-making such emotional power. Astonishing. This was indeed Schubert to compare the PHQ’s hugely admired, award-winning, recording of  Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” and the Quintet.

We would have gone home happy at this point. But if anything, the performance of the Beethoven quartet was even better. PHQ have been playing the “Serioso” occasionally for a long time, and there is even a CD recorded in 2008 for the BBC. That recording was really pretty good, but this morning’s performance was in a different league and has me reaching for the superlatives again. Making real sense of this compressed music, responding to its dramatic complexities, intense but never losing the extraordinarily tight ensemble, this was quartet playing at its finest.

We weren’t the only ones who thought that. The mostly grey-haired audience at the Wigmore are (to be frank) not a very spritely lot, so not inclined to spring lithely to its feet in a standing ovation. What we offer instead is a sitting ovation, with hands clapping above our heads. This morning, the four smiling players returned to the stage to acknowledge a sea of arms raised in loud admiration, and even a chorus of “bravo”s. Richly deserved it was, too.

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