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The Pavel Haas Quartet was founded in 2002 and has recorded mostly Czech music (plus some Prokofiev and Schubert), to excellent reviews and a few awards. Here they take on Shostakovich, whose cycle of fifteen quartets has become so central to the modern repertoire. The PHQ choose numbers 2 (1944), 7 and 8 (both 1960), a varied enough programme, with those pieces having four, three and five movements respectively. No.2 is one of the two longest of the series at 36 minutes, while No.7 is the shortest, and the autobiographical No.8 is probably the most frequently performed.
The influence of Jewish music on Shostakovich is well established, especially its popular or ‘klezmer’ elements, and the PHQ are responsive to those. The first movement of the Second Quartet (titled “Overture”) drives along with symphonic power, but this performance also has a stamping frenetic manner, even something of the ‘laughter through tears’ quality of the klezmer style. The Jewish modality inflects too the “Recitative and Romance” of the Adagio, with its two long solos for first violin framing the quite unromantic ‘Romance’. In those long lamenting recitatives leader and co-founder Veronika Jarůšková plays superbly. She climbs to the top of the range at fig. 39 with dead centre tuning and fine tone, her colleagues supporting her with their hushed and poignant pp chords.
They knock more than a minute off the typical timing for that slow movement, (taking 11:30 to the 12:48 of the Borodin Quartet on EMI), but it never feels rushed. The muted “Waltz” of the third movement has a demonic middle section where the players throw the various ideas between them with some aplomb. The very Russian sounding theme of the finale is beautifully launched by the viola, semplice as marked, and the variations build up an exciting head of steam. This a very good performance indeed of the Second Quartet.
In No.7 the PHQ miss something of the opening movement’s quietly shadowy nature, but they lift the anapaest rhythm of the main theme well enough, and again are very eloquent indeed in the slow movement. That Lento again features a high solo for the leader, immaculately played, and this time the shadowiness is caught well when the viola and cello enter with spooky glissandi. In the furious finale they drive hard in the precipitous fugal writing, before offering a poised account of the much gentler epilogue.
In String Quartet No. 8 the opening DSCH motif, Shostakovich’s musical signature (also heard in No.7), dominates from the start with a fugal Largo. The players again miss something of its poignant quality. Other groups seem to find a more oppressive sadness here. Thereafter all goes very well however, and they respond vigorously to the faster and more violent elements of the piece. Thus their committed playing in the second movement Allegro molto culminates in a particularly arresting quotation of the Jewish music from the Piano Trio no.2, and there is plenty of poignancy in the closing DSCH fugue – perhaps the PHQ’s conception is that the opening is a mere foreshadowing of this finale, and they characterise the two movements accordingly?
There is a good note (by their frequent collaborator, pianist Boris Giltburg) and very good stereo sound. Perhaps the Pavel Haas Quartet, who have had a number of personnel changes, don’t quite yet claim Shostakovich the way they have the music of their countrymen. But there is more than enough here, especially in Quartet No.2, to suggest that if this launches a full cycle, it could become one to watch.