Jan Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From My Life’ (1876) [28:32]
String Quartet No.2 in D minor (1882–83) [19:03]
Pavel Haas Quartet [Veronika Jarušková, Kateřina Gemrotová (violin), Pavel Nikl (viola), Lukáš Polák (cello)]
rec. 2014 ?
SUPRAPHON SU41722 [47:35]

My high appreciation of the Pavel Haas Quartet’s earlier recordings prompted me to stream this from Qobuz as soon as it became available.  Unfortunately and unusually they don’t include the booklet, so I can’t give you the recording date – I presume it was the summer of 2014 – and venue.

Their earlier recordings have all received praise, often the very highest:

• SU38772 Janáček String Quartet No.2; Pavel Haas String Quartet No.2 – review

• SU39222 Pavel Haas String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3; Janáček String Quartet No.1

• SU39572 Prokofiev String Quartet Nos. 1 and 2: Sonata for 2 violins – reviewDL Roundup April 2010

• SU40382 Dvořák String Quartets, Op.96 and 106: Recording of the Month – reviewreviewDL Roundup November 2011/2

• SU41102: Schubert String Quartet No.14 and String Quintet: Recording of the Month – reviewDL News 2013/14

Let me say at once that the new recording lived up to all my expectations and that my only reservation concerns the short playing time.  On LP the two Smetana quartets made a reasonable pairing but on CD we have come to expect rather more.  Even at super-budget price the Talich Quartet recordings from 1991 are coupled with Janáček’s String Quartet No.1, Kreutzer, and Suk’s Wenceslas Meditation (Alto ALC1079 – review).

There are two other Talich Quartet recordings of these works on the La Dolce Volta label: LDV255, with Fibich String Quartet No.1; and LDV267 offering just the two Smetana works.  Both are available to download from eclassical.com in mp3 and lossless sound but, as there are no notes, I’m not sure of the provenance of these recordings.  LDV267 seems to be a reissue of a Calliope recording from the 1980s and LDV255 a later recording in better sound from 2003, released in 2014 to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary, albeit with different personnel.  You should be able to find the CD for around Ł9, which makes the eclassical.com download rather expensive at $15.35, though for dollar purchasers it represents a small saving on the CD.

The very fine performances of these works by the Dante Quartet on Hyperion are supplemented with the Sibelius String Quartet (CDA67845 – review and DL Roundup).  I very much like those performances on Hyperion, especially as the odd pairing of Smetana and Sibelius works well, but this new performance by the Pavel Haas Quartet just has the edge.  As I wrote with reference to their Dvorák recording, you don’t have to be Czech to perform Czech music, but it helps.  Right from the arresting opening chord of No.1 these are performances that make you take notice.  It’s the fourth movement of the first quartet that presents the acid test, starting in a jolly fashion reminiscent of the dances from The Bartered Bride before, at about two minutes in, the mood begins to darken, modifying the dance rhythm while still maintaining it. 

As with Ravel’s La Valse – not a work that I like, but I appreciate how Ravel constructs it – the mood must not darken too perceptibly before the manic scramble that leads into the tragedy of that awful sustained note at just after three minutes, representing the all-pervasive tinnitus which almost destroyed Smetana’s creative career and restricted him to an hour’s composition a day.  As someone who suffers from a mild form of tinnitus, which has restricted my enjoyment of music slightly since it occurred, I can imagine all too well how terrible the full-blown version must have been for Smetana.

The Dante Quartet and the Pavel Haas Quartet see this movement in similar terms.  By direct comparison the Dante Quartet perhaps hint at the sadness to come even in the opening bars, but you notice that only by playing one performance after the other.  Otherwise there is very little to choose.

Sometimes the First Quartet is offered on its own.  Though it’s undeniably the more immediate in appeal, not least for containing the autobiographical elements that give it the subtitle, I’m pleased that Supraphon offer both quartets together, as they did with their earlier recording by the Škampa Quartet, which remains available on SU37402.

The Pavel Haas Quartet give a very fine performance of this much sterner-toned quartet, too.  Gone is the light-hearted music: even the second movement polka struts rather than dances. The Škampa Quartet chose it rather than its better-known predecessor for their concert at the Wigmore Hall, preserved on Wigmore Hall Live with Mozart and Shostakovich (WHLIVE0019) and I listened to them for comparison.  If they capture the wistful dance-that-might-have-been slightly better than the Pavel Haas Quartet – though slightly faster, they actually manage to sound more hesitant in launching into the dance – there’s very little in it.  The Dante Quartet, on the other hand, strike a slightly lighter note in this work.

Having listened to the Talich Quartet (Dolce Volta), Dante Quartet and Pavel Haas recordings, I’d be happy with any one of them for my putative Desert Island.  If pushed to a choice, however, I’d plump for the new Supraphon.  Only the addition of the Sibelius and Fibich quartets speaks for preference of the alternatives. 

The new Supraphon recording is very good, as is the Hyperion, and the Dolce Volta is only slightly less so.  It’s a lot to ask full price for a 48-minute CD, but if you are prepared to forego the booklet you can download the new recording from Qobuz in lossless sound for Ł6.29, about half the price of the CD.  If you are happy with top bit-rate mp3 (320kb/s) subscribers to emusic.com can obtain the download for Ł3.36 or less.

Brian Wilson

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