Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
String Quartet No.13 in G major Op. 106, B192 [36:44]
String Quartet No.12 in F major Op. 96, “American,” B179 [26:24]
Pavel Haas Quartet
rec. Rudolfinum, Prague June 2010
SUPRAPHON SU 4038-2 [63:08]

My MusicWeb International colleague Jonathan Woolf has already published a review of this disc which, though generally positive, could not hold back some major reservations about the playing. His critique appeared one day after I began planning a one-sided write-up giving the CD my highest praise. In light of Mr Woolf’s assessment I returned to the disc, listened a few more times, and decided that I believed in its success enough to proceed. The Pavel Haas Quartet have provided my new reference recording for these two Dvorák masterworks.

The critic is supposed to reserve declarations of ‘new favorites’ and ‘benchmarks’ until hours of careful listening, cross-comparisons, and devoted analysis have borne their fruit. And yet the truth is that sometimes one knows right away. When I saw the Pavel Haas Quartet play Dvorák’s “American” quartet op. 96 live last year at St Luke’s, London, I knew right away: those shimmering opening notes on the violins, before the violist even gets to declaim the big tune, contained a complete summary of the Pavel Haas Quartet’s style. The opening notes were (and are, here) sung, very quickly by some standards but also very softly, the result being an effect of totally un-self-conscious sensitivity. We often use phrases like “spontaneously energetic” to describe performers who play so passionately they sound as if they are improvising. In these opening bars, the Pavel Haas Quartet are spontaneously gentle.

This ‘spontaneous gentleness’ runs throughout the disc. A fellow critic on another website has written that “playing like this disarms criticism.” Since the same thought occurred to me while watching the Pavel Haas Quartet live, I will “unpack” it a little bit here.

What does “playing which disarms criticism” mean? I have a certain idea of how the quartets ought to go; the imaginary “string quartet in my head,” which plays the music when I’m bored in the Tube or walking out of a concert, has a particular style in which it interprets these works. Part of the job of criticism is comparing performances to each other, but the unstated element is that any given disc will also be compared to the imaginary “ideal” in the listener’s head: oh, that was too soft, that was too fast, etc. To be sure, these judgments evolve over time; if the orchestra in my head had produced a recording of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony last year, I would find it hectic this year!

Be that as it may: the Pavel Haas Quartet just kept ticking boxes, and even satisfying expectations I didn’t know I had. Take the “American” quartet: the characterful entrances of each instrument, the unexpected sensitivity of the transition beginning at 0:53, the wonderfully shaded crescendo at 5:10 (so many quartets start at mezzo-forte already), the sudden tranquility at 8:30, like stumbling on a garden in the center of a maze of city streets; the gentle portamenti and “floating” feel of the slow movement (try 5:02); the ‘spontaneous gentleness’ again at 3:20 in the scherzo.

Quartet No. 13’s introduction sounds like a classical minuet interrupted by some kind of ominous message: this is a truly epic performance of a quartet which could have just as easily been a symphony. The players lend it the colors and boldness of an orchestra, but this is not merely about generating excitement: it’s about creating a big, vibrant drama. The slow movement is faster than normal, but it’s because the quartet creates different moods for each subject, rather than treating every episode alike. A constant in both quartets is the pleasure of the Pavel Haas sound: no intonation problems, indeed four very equal partners who each sound as if they could easily have had successful solo careers.

How to describe the PHQ sound? The Pavel Haas Quartet emphasize both extremes, lyricism and excitement, so much so that they do produce conflicting responses. When I saw them in the Ravel Quartet (a performance Bob Briggs called “perfection” on Seen and Heard), the opening movement was smooth as silk and the finale a madcap romp. A friend said she felt it was “a very Czech Ravel.” Czech at times, yes, French at others, irresistible always.

That is only my opinion, though. My colleague Jonathan Woolf responded with skepticism to this same range, particularly in Op. 106, with the huge contrasts between its playful melodies and volcanic, orchestral climaxes. This can be heard in miniature at 1:08 in the scherzo of the ‘American,’ when the cello plays a tune so quietly and plainly that the notes sound harmonics, and then the other three players jump in with ferocity. Rather than dialing down the climaxes to sound “intimate, warm, and elegant,” or speeding through lyrical material Panocha-style to sound “vibrant, energetic, and imbued with Czech folk rhythm” - to create two imaginary opposites - the Pavel Haas opt for an approach that leaps from one extreme to another with the excitement and daring of trapeze artists. For some, this inevitably will feel like they are having their cake and eating it too. To me, this approach — spontaneous, boldly romantic, extremely difficult to characterize — fits Dvorák’s chamber music like a glove.

Comparing this disc to other recordings would simply flatter it more. The Vlach Quartet Prague on Naxos offers exactly the same coupling in superb readings, with an especially rich viola sound in the opening solo, but they can’t match the Pavel Haas’s individualism. The Panochas, widely considered a top pick, have always left me cold; they play too quickly for me. Let me qualify that. The Panocha Quartet have a keen sense of Dvorák’s folk rhythms, boisterous humor, and all-around fondness for fun, but do not always produce the sensitivity or calm needed for contrast. They are consistently thrilling. They are inconsistently touching.

So there is the dissenting view. This is the Pavel Haas Quartet’s fourth compact disc, and they have yet to fall short of even the highest expectations. I’ve seen them four times in concert and been wowed each time. It seems to me that the Pavel Haas have developed a distinct sound of their own: they usually work with slickly up-tempo speeds, but have a softness and delicacy which makes the speed deceptive. They play pianissimo with fragile beauty and perfect intonation, then roar back with frenetic energy at the climaxes. This is just my kind of Dvorák.

Brian Reinhart

Just right to these ears.