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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.2 Intimate Letters (1928) [25:38]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)

String Quartet No.2 Op.7 Z Opičích hor [From the Monkey Mountains] (1925) [31:46] *
Pavel Haas Quartet
Colin Currie (percussion) *
rec. Domovina Studios, Prague, April-May 2006
SUPRAPHON SU 3877-2 [57:35]

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Perfect programming. Haas was one of Janáček’s most distinguished pupils and chronologically Haas’s Second Quartet almost exactly bisects those of his teacher. Supraphon and the Pavel Haas Quartet have chosen to contrast the work of the younger man with Janáček’s Intimate Letters. This throws up all manner of fascinating insights into the creative process and into Haas’s absorption of the Janáček sound-world, rhythmic and colouristic.

Haas’s Second Quartet was written in 1925 and is subtitled Z Opičích hor [From the Monkey Mountains], a nickname for Vysocina, near Brno, in the Moravian Highlands. It’s written in four movements and is here played in the version for percussion (in the finale only) as was originally the case in its premiere. It wasn’t especially well received on its first performance by the Moravian Quartet – who as admirers will know were amongst Janáček’s own interpreters of choice - and so there is an option to jettison the percussion part. So far as I’m aware this is the version generally preferred in other performances and recordings.

The movements bear superscriptions – Landscape; Coach, Coachman and Horse; The Moon and I; and Wild Night. The high fiddle writing and rhythmic patterns are very much reminiscent of Janáček But there’s a folk lilt and rather more explicitly dance-like material than Janáček would have countenanced in his own works for the medium. The opening movement veers between expressive poles, and encloses a powerful expressive central section; at ten minutes it doesn’t lose interest but does flirt with repetition. The second movement – marked andante – is pictorial in its depiction of the coachman and horse, with the rhythm lurching off-centre, heaving from side to side. A Moravian dance whips things up before some warm unison writing contrasts with it.

The slow movement (The Moon and I), whilst it sounds as if it could be rather descriptive in the manner of Novák’s superbly romanticised piano works, actually develops a pronounced sensual lyricism. But Janáček is never far off and those chugging rhythms arrive to force a fiercely controlled climax of real power – and then a return to the lyricism of the opening. It’s the finale that caused the Brno consternation I suppose. Wild sonorities and heavily emphatic rhythmic drive predict another Moravian dance. But this time it’s accompanied by the modish call of the percussion – and a fullish kit from the sound of it, played by Colin Currie. There are hints in its rhythmic patterns of ragtime and early, rather staid jazz. Outbursts are grandiloquent, and exciting. The quartet follows its alternating lyrical and dramatic Janáček-derived outbursts with the percussion adding colour, contemporary outrage and a veritable kick. Eighty years ago this was badly received even by the performers; after the premiere the Moravians only ever played the quartet version.

This is an exciting and driving performance, fully aware of the lineage and stylistic inheritance to which Haas was heir but also paying due heed to his youthful verve and playfully subversive originality.

Listening to their Intimate Letters, before I’d read the quartet’s biography in the booklet, I was convinced they’d listened to performances by the Smetana Quartet. They have in fact worked regularly with Milan Škampa, legendary violist of the group – and he actually contributes a booklet note on the Janáček quartet. The curve of the performance is reminiscent of the later group – say the mid-seventies incarnation – though the Pavel Haas takes the finale significantly slower. Their concentration on elegance and control of contour is admirable and if I find them somewhat lacking in intensity in the slow movement, doubtless that will come with time. Janáček always praised the Moravian Quartet for playing his music with fearless passion. He might have found the present performance strong on rhythmic attacks but a little light on the intimacy and emotion.

With a warmly balanced recording in the Domovina studios and pretty good notes this is an acutely selected example of Moravian sons and heirs. If you thought that the Janáček quartets were a beginning and an end in themselves then Haas gives one an example of how younger composers took him as a compositional model – and how far, or how little, they truly succeeded in absorbing his sound-world.

Jonathan Woolf


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