Pavel Haas Qt

The Pavel Haas Quartet — at Cambridge

A few days after playing at Wigmore Hall, The Pavel Haas Quartet and Boris Giltburg were in Cambridge at the Peterhouse Theatre, again playing the Shostakovich Piano Quintet. This time, the other piece in the programme was Dvořák’s Op. 81 Piano Quintet.

One of PHQ’s remarkable gifts is to make performances of music that we know that they have rehearsed with great intensity sound freshly inspired, newly wrought. (The last quartet I heard in Cambridge was Quatuor Ebène, who are indeed fine — yet somehow they struck me as sounding too polished, and that surface gloss made it difficult to get an emotional grip on their performance.) PHQ recorded the Dvořák with Giltburg in 2017, and rightly won the highest praise for the disc and a Gramophone Award; but they played last night with such verve and warmth and evident love for the music, it was as if they had just recently discovered the piece. It is difficult to imagine, too, a more fitting match than between Giltburg’s mercurial playing and the Quartet’s — the happiest of musical partnerships.

I said after hearing their Shostakovich in London that I doubted that the Quintet could be played better. Yet, if anything, it was so last night. Perhaps it was the setting. Lovely though Wigmore Hall is, the small Peterhouse venue — seating just 180 people on two levels, so you can be no more than seven rows from the small stage — is a much more intimate space. And a group like the Pavel Haas, playing with characteristic passionate intensity, can then make a particularly intense impact. So in that venue, together with Boris Giltburg, their Shostakovich really took fire. Wonderful playing from all five of them.

(I was so caught up in the warmest applause at the end of the concert, I forgot to turn on my phone to picture them responding wreathed in smiles — so here they are, deservedly looking equally cheerful, after another concert!)

The Pavel Haas Quartet — at Wigmore Hall

The Pavel Haas Quartet glimpsed rehearsing the Shostakovich Quintet for their Wigmore Hall concert on Wednesday with the terrific Boris Giltburg. The evening performance was wonderful, the best I’ve heard that piece played, full of ambiguities, tensions, life and colour. Indeed — as Boris Giltburg says — they rocked! (Or as the Times reviewer put it, they were at the top of their game. “The prelude was beautifully drawn, its counterpoint perfectly balanced. The sulphurous jig of the scherzo thickly painted, grimacing theatre music, while the intermezzo unfolded with magical transparency. There’s a volte-face in the finale to levity, a shift in tone that the quartet managed here with the grace of a master conjurer.”)

Here they are playing the intermezzo of the Quintet live on the BBC the previous evening  (starting 43 mins in).

And here are just the Quartet on Swiss Radio, a concert they played in Geneva earlier in the month (Schulhoff, Quartet No. 1; Dvorák, Quartet No. 12, ‘American’; Tchaikovsky, Quartet No. 3).

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.

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