Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Plymouth Church
April 8

A distinctive voice from Central Europe.

There are two ways to play classical music. One is straightforward, with absolute devotion what appears in the score – no more, no less. The other is interpretive, giving the music a fresh face with an original style or personal approach. The very best artists combine the two, bringing new dimensions to rigorous performance standards.

The Pavel Haas Quartet does that and more. Trained in Central Europe, the group embodies a long tradition of precision technique and deep expression, music played from the heart with razor-sharp technical skill. Beyond that, the ensemble’s style is modern and distinctly its own – passionate, intensely focused, fiercely elegant. It is a tightly disciplined approach that runs the music to thrilling extremes, then stops just short of going over the edge.

This style has won the group international acclaim, starting with winning the prestigious Paolo Borciani competition in Italy in 2005. Subsequent CD releases have drawn rave reviews, including a Gramophone Recording of the Year award for the 2010 “Dvořák String Quartets.” And the group is in constant demand on the concert circuit, with performances scheduled in coming months at the Prague Spring, Aldeburgh, Edinburgh and Schubertiade festivals.

At Plymouth Church last week, it was easy to see why. The program opened with Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, a piece as gripping as any in the literature. “This is something special for us,” cellist Peter Jarůšek acknowledged afterward, a work with deep roots in the players’ home country, written in the composer’s distinctive (and complex) musical language. It was mesmerizing, played with wrenching feeling and absolute command, almost startling in its sharp breaks and explosive sound.

Just as captivating was the sense of atmosphere the group created, especially in a part of the world where Janáček’s work is not often heard. It was as if a voice had spoken from thousands of miles and decades away, fully realized and emotionally intact, with all the angst and dark drama of the music still raw on its jagged surface.

Britten’s String Quartet No. 2, another seldom-heard work, was a technical tour de force, with glistening violin lines floating ethereally one moment, then dashing off into crisp, cascading runs the next. The piece sets off contrasting bottom and top tones throughout, an effect nicely articulated by the ensemble in harmonies that occasionally sounded like entirely different instruments – an organ at one point, an accordion at another. The soundscape was fascinating, beautifully drawn in vivid colors and fine stylistic nuances.

The group finished with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8, putting its own distinctive stamp on the piece. Had it been first on the program, it might not have worked; the passion, phrasing and sheer power of the playing would have seemed out of place. But with the ensemble’s style well-established, the piece pulsed with radiant energy and irresistible driving rhythms. More lyrical than the previous pieces, it was by turns dark, lustrous, elegant and fiery, building to a final movement played at a blistering pace. Quicksilver lines darted and sparks flew as the music took on a life its own, the four instruments speaking in a single, organic voice.

An encore of a Dvořák waltz offered a melodic and warmly emotional return to the group’s roots, again with a keen balance of technique and expression. When the players finally left the stage, it was like waking from a dream – their performance had been spellbinding.

All dreams should be that good.

For more on the Pavel Haas Quartet: http://www.pavelhaasquartet.com/en/

The next Cleveland Chamber Music Society concert features another fearless young group, eighth blackbird. Details at: http://clevelandchambermusic.org/29apr2014.php

Photo by Marco Borggreve

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