Pavel Haas Qt

Three CDs of the year

Schubert’s late piano works have long been some of the most important music of all for me. So one of the highlights of this last year was going to hear Imogen Cooper’s wonderful 70th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall, when she played the last three sonatas,  every bar revealing her deep and lasting engagement with this music. More recently, I’ve discovered Francesco Piemontese’s rightly much admired recordings of the same sonatas. But the most revelatory Schubert this year must surely be the second installment of Andras Schiff’s recordings made on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano, made in Vienna around 1820. Schiff’s performances are utterly convincing and make you hear these pieces anew; I was bowled over again, as I was by the preceding disks. Listen, for example, to the Drei Klavierstücke D 946 (favourites of mine): magical playing.

I have much admired Ivana Gavrić’s previous recordings, and praised them here. So I would have bought her new release, whatever it was. This new CD, Origins, starts with a sparkling performance of the Haydn D Major Concerto (it took me a few moments to adapt my ears to the orchestral texture, so used am I to listening to “period” performances of Haydn, but this is joyous playing). There follow the six short homages to Haydn for solo piano commissioned from French composers for the 100th anniversary of his death, and a seventh homage from Gavrić’s Cambridge contemporary, the composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad. And then there follows a performance of the piano concerto Between the Skies, the River and the Hills written for Gavrić by Frances-Hoad. This nods to Haydn (particularly his last movement thought sometimes to be based on  a Bosnian dance) and uses a Bosnian folk song in its own third movement: the connection here is that Gavrić herself was born and spent her early years in Sarajevo. There’s more about the CD in three short videos here. I’ve listened and re-listened with warm admiration — both for Frances-Hoad’s composition and Gavrić’s playing! — and I have enjoyed this CD a lot: well worth seeking out.

But the CD of the year has to be the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Shostakovich disk. This isn’t comfortable listening. As the reviewer on the BBC Radio 3 Record Review programme put it, “It’s absolutely gut wrenchingly intense. It’s almost unlistenable to, it’s so fabulous, it’s such committed playing, it’s such deep, deep sincerity.” That gets it exactly right: I’ve heard them play Shostakovich in concert with the same completely overwhelming mastery and emotional depth.  This is all quite extraordinary playing, intense indeed, but also in places heartstoppingly beautiful (listen to Veronika Jarůšková in the Adagio of the 2nd Quartet).   There’s a revealing interview with PHQ here that tells us something about how they prepare and rehearse and come to terms with the music with such concentrated attention: the result is stunning.

PHQ play Beethoven Op 59/3 and Schubert Trout Quintet

To Wigmore Hall, to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet again. A matchless evening.

In the second half of the concert, they played the Trout Quintet with the pianist Boris Giltburg and Enno Senft on double bass. This is joyous music, and the five of them were obviously enjoying themselves enormously; you kept catching shared half-smiles as they played with such verve, without ever losing their subtle colouring and wonderful ensemble. Giltburg in particular was dazzling but never dominating as he wove in and out of the other four. We loved it, the audience loved it, and the musicians happily beamed back as they took the waves of applause. Great stuff. (Boris Giltburg has posted a short video of them rehearsing earlier, which gives a flavour, but the sound isn’t terrific and the evening performance was much more magical.)

But a chance to hear the Trout Quintet wasn’t the main reason I’d been looking forward to this concert for months. Because, before the interval, PHQ played Beethoven’s third Rasumovsky Quartet. I fell in love with this piece, particularly the Andante, when a student — first heard, indeed, in Godard’s film, Une Femme Mariée where snatches of Beethoven keep recurring. As odd chance would have it, I had never before heard it played live, even by a good quartet let alone a great one: the time had come! And, oh heavens, it was a stunning performance — more than bearing comparison with the greatest recordings. Veronica Jarůšková’s phrasing, bar by bar, is a thing of wonder. The Andante was played at the edge of melancholy, with the cello’s plucked notes (which can be too dominant in some performances) in perfect balance. The final Allegro then performed with such speed and drive but also such control, to bring cheers as the four raised their bows at the end. Astonishing indeed.

Ten years ago, the BBC Music Magazine had a cover CD of the PHQ playing three of the Beethoven Quartets (when they were BBC New Generation Artists). These are fine performances, full of youthful adventure. But ten years on — and now with Marek Zwiebel, who is surely just a superb second violinist — their Beethoven playing is in a different league again. In my dream world,  they will one day (sooner rather than later) get back to the studio and record e.g. all three Rasumovsky Quartets. That would be quite something.

Not quite the same, perhaps, but here are the PHQ on BBC iPlayer from a concert recorded last year, with Dvořák’s String Quartet No.14, Op.105 (something else they haven’t yet recorded). No one plays Dvořák better. 

PHQ play Shostakovich

To the Wigmore Hall, to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet playing Shostakovich’s second and seventh string quartets in a lunchtime concert. PHQ are recording these plus the wonderful eighth quartet next month for Supraphon, with a planned October release. So they have been playing Shostakovich a lot in their recent concerts, and oh heavens it showed. These were stupendous performances with all PHQ’s usual commitment and passion but so much fine detail and immense control. The audience gave them a terrific reception — so a lot of smiles after all the tension in the music.

More than worth the journey to London to be there — for isn’t this music where you really want to be in the audience for the drama? But the concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. You can catch up on BBC Sounds here. And the concert will be broadcast again on Sunday on Radio 3 at 13.00.

There is a lengthy review here.

The Pavel Haas Quartet, again

To a packed Wigmore Hall again last week, to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet. The concert started with Schubert’s Quartettsatz and ended with Dvořák’s A flat Quartet, Op. 105, both wonderfully well played. But in between, there was one of the greatest chamber music performances I have ever heard, whether live or recorded. The PHQ played Schubert’s A minor ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet with stunningly controlled emotional intensity to an absolutely rapt sell-out audience. They play with little vibrato and even less portamento on nineteenth century Czech instruments, which gives a sound far from over-smooth, and utterly suited to Schubert’s melancholic lament for lost innocence, lost content, in this Quartet. Extraordinary ensemble playing from all four of them — though Veronika Jarůšková (always a striking presence) was simply spellbinding.

Apologies though: it is no great joy to read about events you have missed! Still, I’m allowing myself to note last week’s concert because it also gives me an opportunity to tell you about another PHQ concert that you can still hear. Earlier in the year, they played an all-Shostakovich concert in Brussels — the String Quartet no 7, Op. 108, Second Piano Trio Op. 67, and Piano Quintet Op. 57: the pianist was Boris Giltburg. You can now catch a recording of the concert for 30 days on WDR 3 radio, here.

And a request: did anyone reading this happen to record the broadcast of the PHQ’s Edinburgh concert which I mentioned here? If so, I’d really like to hear from you, as I managed to foul up the recording of it myself.

The Pavel Haas Quartet’s Dvorak, another triumph

Photo: Smetanova Litomyšl

Released near the end of 2107, it was my CD of the year; and now the Gramophone magazine have given it their Chamber Music Award for 2018. The Pavel Haas Quartet playing Dvorak  — in this case, the second Piano Quintet Op. 81, with their friend Boris Giltberg on piano, and the String Quintet Op. 97, with their more-than-friend Pavel Nikl as the second viola — is as good as it gets.

Leaving aside an early CD of Beethoven quartets, given away with a BBC Music magazine, the PHQ have now released seven CDs with Supraphon. Their debut CD won the Gramophone award for  Chamber Music disk of the year. And now so too have their last four recordings. This really is a quite extraordinary achievement, as far as I know quite unparalleled in any area of classical music. And it is against the stiffest of competitions, when you think how many stunningly good string quartets there are performing today.

As one  — again bowled over — reviewer wondered, ‘How do they do it?’ That is really for the more musically perceptive than I am to answer. But even the amateur listener, hearing them live, can only be struck by the evident depth of musical understanding and the level of passionate commitment combined with the greatest technical control of fine detail. Long may they flourish with their new violist (above) who seems to bring yet more to the group.

Next up, a year hence, a CD of Shostakovich quartets …

The Pavel Haas Quartet at the Edinburgh Festival

Pavel Haas Quartet
Photo: Marco Borggreve

With their last CD newly shortlisted for yet another Gramophone Award, The Pavel Haas Quartet have started their new season with a concert at the Edinburgh Festival, playing Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7, Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet and the Ravel Quartet. You can listen for another four weeks at the BBC site, here. They are in terrific form – who would guess that they have only been playing with their new violist for half a year? – and the Schubert here (starting at 18.45) is quite exceptional, even better I think than when I last heard them play it in London. Catch this concert while you can!

The Pavel Haas, remixed

Photo: Marco Borggreve

Sadly we can’t get to the Wigmore Hall concert tonight to hear the Pavel Haas for the first time in their (wonderfully promising) new line up.

It must have been a great blow to them when their founder violist Pavel Nikl had to leave the Quartet in 2016 because of family illness. His replacement Radim Sedmidubský is a fine player, but somehow (to me at any rate) he never felt an entirely comfortable fit for the quartet; and, for whatever reason, he left at the end of 2017. The Pavel Haas played a few concerts with Pavel Nikl again, but he hasn’t been able to rejoin them. And so they teamed up with the young composer/conductor/violist Jiří Kabát, and played a few concerts earlier in year, and he has now officially joined the Quartet.

Every sign is that this promises to be a happy match with another very serious and gifted musician who can play with the intense commitment of the other three. Though that’s too solemn a way to put it —  a Facebook post from the Quartet after their first official outing together showed beaming smiles all round with the simple comment “Feeling wonderful”. Very much hope to catch them in London in September …

Scroll to Top