The Pavel Haas Quartet, of late, has been the focus of much hype and excitement, and I was curious to know what all the fuss is about. Having lived with and listened to these CDs several times over the past week, I now know. Quite simply, not to put too fine a point on it, this recording is a sensation. I was aware when I asked to review this, that it had garnered several rave reviews, and being a lover of both chamber music and Schubert’s in particular, I had great expectations. I’ve not been disappointed.
Founded in 2002, the quartet was named after Pavel Haas, a Czech composer and pupil of Leoš Janáček. Tragedy befell Haas; he spent his last days in the camp at Terezin, and died in Auschwitz in 1944. The Quartet has been the recipients of numerous awards and accolades, including the Gramophone Recording of the Year 2011 for a CD of Dvořák Quartets. It also has other fine recordings under its belt. There have been several personnel changes along the way before the current line-up. They have recorded all three of the Haas string quartets, pertinently coupling them with those of Janáček. I’ve already placed my order.
The pairing of these two works is a very intelligent one. Both are preoccupied with the notion of death and finality. The String Quartet in D minor, D 810 was composed in 1824, four years before Schubert’s death. It is entitled Death and the Maiden
; the song of the same name (D 531) provides the theme for the second movement variations. The composer had already been suffering from syphilis for two years and that same year wrote: “Each night when I go to sleep, I hope never to wake again, and each morning serves only to recall the misery of the previous day
." From the first declamatory chords of the opening movement you realize that the Pavel Haas mean business. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a dramatic opening and you are literally kept on the edge of your seat for the rest of the movement. High-powered, passionate and thrilling are the adjectives which best describe this playing. The intense, underlying tension is contrasted with the fervent, heartfelt lyricism of the second subject. Throughout, these young players imbue the music with light and shade. It is not a cosy performance yet ensemble and intonation are faultless.
The dark theme of the second movement is haunting, funereal and filled with pathos - heartfelt and sincere. As the variations unfold, an eloquent dialogue between the individual instruments emerges. Each variation is thoughtfully nuanced and sensitively sculpted, with the players highlighting the dramatic contrasts between the variations. The third movement Scherzo is a rhythmic tour de force. The finale, marked Presto, is almost a tarantella, a dance to ward off the spider’s bite and thus flee from death, with the Pavel Haas conjuring up a musical exorcism. The dotted rhythmic patterns are crisply incisive and the movement is carried off with velocity and élan.
The String Quintet in C major was composed in 1828. This was the last year of Schubert’s short life and a prolifically fruitful year by any standards. During it he composed, amongst other things, the Mass in E flat, the last three Piano Sonatas, the F minor Fantasie for piano duet and this String Quintet. Benjamin Britten, no less, considered this year to be the most miraculous in the history of music. Danjulo Ishizaka is an excellent choice as second cello in the Quintet and blends into the ensemble well. Of German/Japanese origin, he was described by none other than Rostropovich as ‘phenomenal in his technical ability, perfect in his musical creative power’. He certainly brings these gifts to the performance of the Quintet.
I consider this work to be the most sublime piece of chamber music ever written, and the Pavel Haas enter a very crowded playing field, with many outstanding recordings. Some of my favourites that spring to mind are the Lindsays, the Belceas, the Alban Berg and not forgetting, the Hollywood’s 1951 account.
For me, the performance here ticks all the right boxes. From the opening chords, you feel that these young players are taking you on a journey. Having a clear vision and understanding of the structure of the music, they explore its full emotional range. Warmth and expressive phrasing are a distinguishing hallmark. The second movement, the emotional core, is well-paced. There is a tranquillity, an other-worldliness and a sense of resignation in the playing. They bring out the dark and anguished character of the dramatic section. Here one becomes aware of Schubert’s terror of approaching death. The Scherzo is imbued with gusto and energy, the trio, in contrast, being subdued. The finale is truly marked with a gypsy swagger.
Chamber music lovers, I am sure, will want these recordings, and I have no doubt that they will become benchmarks for these two glories of the chamber music repertoire. Recorded sound and balance is second to none; the Domovina Studio, Prague provides an ideal acoustic. Booklet notes by Vlasta Reiffererova supply the essential information. These young players are a force to be reckoned with, and the anticipation and enthusiasm they have earned with the listening public is here proved beyond doubt.
Masterwork Index: Death and the Maiden quartet
~~ String quintet