Pavel Haas Qt

Review: the Pavel Haas Quartet, Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’ and the String Quintet

Readers of this blog will know how greatly I have admired the Pavel Haas Quartet for a while. And it isn’t just me who finds them absolutely compelling both in live performance and on disc. Their previous four CDs have rightly been hugely praised, with the most recent Dvorak disk even winning The Gramophone Recording of the Year for 2011. And live, they are the most exciting quartet to watch and hear.

Now, at last, we have a new recording, of the Schubert D minor quartet, “Death and the Maiden”, and the String Quintet.  Michael Tanner writing in the BBC Music Magazine, another philosopher who weighs his words carefully,  called these “great performances … essential listening for anyone who loves Schubert”. The Times reviewer wrote “If CDs had grooves I would already have worn out these marvellous recordings  … the perfect fusion of virtuosity and profundity.”  Indeed. These performances are of a quite unworldly quality, deeply felt yet utterly thought-through, the most passionate you have heard but with moments of haunting delicacy,  with an overarching architectural vision always holding it all together.

The Pavel Haas launch into “Death and the Maiden” with fierce attack and astringent (almost vibrato-less) tone.  And they start as they mean to go on. The recent Takacs and the Belcea versions — good though they are — now seem slightly restrained in contrast (this is the still-young Schubert confronting death here, and the still-young Pavel Haas respond with apt intensity). The obvious comparison would be with the Lindsays’ great recording from twenty five years ago, which I would previously have said was the finest post-war version. But the Pavel Haas’s controlled passion, their even more moving account of the variations of the second movement, and their vehement drive to the end of the quartet, makes — I think — for an unparalleled performance.

As for the Quintet, this performance with Danjulo Ishizaka as the second cello is perhaps even finer. For any players, the problem — isn’t it? — is to maintain a shape to the whole piece: a bit too ethereal with the second movement and a bit too cheery with the last movements, and the Quintet is in danger of seeming unsatisfyingly unbalanced. But here, the whole hangs together better than any other interpretation I know. Although the playing is more expansive, within a few bars of the opening, the Pavel Haas have again built an extraordinary sense of tension. This is not comfortable listening — but then much of late Schubert isn’t (as Michael Tanner also remarks). And the underlying tension is then maintained in a driven, uncompromising, way to the very end, with the slow movement giving only some partial relief (and there, the central section is played with a yearning fierceness, and the playing when the original theme returns is heart-stopping).  This makes for an exploration of the music at a level of intensity that again more than bears comparison with the Lindsays’ historic recording. Surely, a truly great interpretation of this great musical exploration of our humanity and mortality.

After a series of changes of second violin over the years, the Pavel Haas have never sounded better. Hopefully they will now stay happily together as they are.

Added The Gramophone reviewer writes of their “fearless risk-taking , their fervency” and “insanely memorable” phrasing; the Pavel Haas are “absolutely mesmerising” (in the close of the slow movement of the Quintet); “raw, visceral, and with an emotional immediacy that is almost unbearable” (at the ending of Death and the Maiden), and more. Yes!

Added  In the months since this review was first written, I’ve found that these performances more than live up to repeated listening.

 Added: Hopefully, their next CD will be of the Smetena Quartets: their live performances which I’ve heard have been nothing short of astonishing.

Pavel Haas Quartet, Wigmore Hall

I’ve raved here about the Pavel Haas Quartet before. But we had another chance to see them live at the Wigmore Hall last night. And they were as terrific as ever.

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.

Pavel Haas Quartet, once more

I have mentioned this young Czech quartet a couple of times before in this blog, to rave about their great recording of Dvořák’s American Quartet, and about some truly wonderful radio broadcasts of them playing Beethoven and Schubert. Today we went up to the Wigmore Hall to hear their lunchtime concert playing Janáček’s Initimate Letters and Smetena’s From My Life. To say it was worth the journey from Cambridge was an understatement. This is powerful music, and it was played with intense feeling and utter conviction and control. Very difficult to stay dry-eyed in the Smetena in particular. Thanks to the BBC you can listen online for the next week.

As the Radio 3 announcer says (but forgot to tell the audience in the hall), the Quartet have a new second violin Marek Zwiebel, and this was one of their first performances with the new line up. You wouldn’t have guessed: the ensemble was still as stunning, and their sound still as remarkable. If the Pavel Haas Quartet come your way on their travels, grab tickets, whatever they are playing. String quartet playing doesn’t get better than this.

The Pavel Haas Quartet again [updated]

Driving back and forth to the town dump with a load of garden waste, I unexpectedly caught on the radio  — with an innocent ear — a concert performance of (most of) the first Rasumovsky quartet. It was stunningly good. I thought it sounded like a Czech — or at least middle European — quartet, and to be young too. And (having recently bought their Dvorak and Prokofiev CDs) I wondered if it was the Haas Quartet. Well, indeed it was. One of the very best performances I’ve ever heard. You can listen to it here for the next week. (But if you miss that chance, you’ll get an idea of how good they are from this film of them playing the last movement from the third Rasumovsky, also courtesy of the BBC.)

[Added later. You can also, for the next few days, listen to them playing the Schubert Quartettsatz and “Death and the Maiden”. More great stuff. Thanks, BBC!]

Touched by greatness

A very moving concert last night. In the small Peterhouse Theatre (a lovely space for intimate music), Menahem Pressler played Beethoven’s A-flat major sonata, Op. 110, Debussy’s Estampes, and then Schubert’s last piano sonata D. 960. He talked touchingly at the beginning of the evening, and this was evidently music that meant a great deal to him. Pressler’s playing now is not the most technically secure, but his desire to communicate with his audience is undimmed.  Pavel Haas Quartet play DvorakThe Schubert in particular was very affecting: in the second movement, the poignancy of an old man now 87 playing the searing music of a young man facing early death was almost too much to take. We will remember the occasion a long time.

It can be irritating though — can’t it? — to hear tell of great concerts that you’ve now missed (and couldn’t have got to anyhow). So let me mention something else which is quite wonderful in a different way, the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Dvořák disk. Hardly a discovery by me! — it’s the recently announced new Gramophone Recording of the Year. But it really is astonishing. I’ve always thought the old performance of the “American” quartet by the Hollywood Quartet was in a league of its own (one generation from the shtetl, is it fanciful to hear the tug of a vanished Europe in their playing?). But this new recording from the young Czech quartet is at least as great. I’m bowled over.

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