Thursday night the Celebrity Series of Boston presented the Prague-based Pavel Haas Quartet in its long-overdue Pickman Hall debut [the quartet has concertized Boston before privately]. Its exciting program played with verve and limpid grace provided an auspicious start; let’s hope we see much more of this exciting group.
Named after the Czech composer imprisoned at Theresienstadt and killed at Auschwitz, this ensemble rose to prominence a decade ago when it won the Paolo Borciani competition. Now with five CDs, all recorded on Supraphon, this string foursome holds multiple Gramophone Awards as well as a Diapason d’Or de l’année, and tours the world to great acclaim. The group found a teacher and mentor in Milan Skampa, violist of the Smetana Quartet. The four are: Veronika Jarušková and Marek Zwiebel, violins; Pavel Nikl, viola; and Peter Jarušek, cello. Together they play with precision, variety, interactivity, and powerful emotional involvement. The music came alive and the challenges of extended technique were treated as exciting moments of play rather than hurdles to be cleared.
While this concert did not feature music of their namesake composer, it did offer Bohemian music of Martinů and Dvořák, balanced beautifully by one of Beethoven’s Razumovskys. Bohuslav Martinů’s String Quartet no. 3 opened with an Allegro that was replete with cross-rhythms and jazzy (in a fusion or freeform jazz vein). The idiom is catchy, vibrant, and utterly Modern. The Andante crossed hymn with lullaby, built on a foundation seemingly hewn from Bohemian folk-tunes. The concluding Vivo brimmed with frenetic energy. Throughout, the music was viola driven, giving a warm color to the work. A fascinating portrait of this protean composer and his intriguing idiom resulted.
Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 34 offered a compelling a complement to the Martinů. The Allegro flowed as river of sound—smoothly gliding, shallow rills over a bed of rocks, treacherous rapids then, development finished, a return to the tranquil opening and combined with the agitation of the journey already experienced. The Alla polka: Allegretto scherzando came closer to the dance-form as expressed in Chopin’s piano pieces, yet it pranced here with artful harmonies and lilting melodies. By contrast, the brooding and dark adagio slowly blossomed as the movement took on a decided edge. The Finale: Poco allegro glittered an ethereal dance, handily dispatched with a flourishing final gallop.
Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2. Closed the concert with a reading that sounded new vital, and vibrant while remaining at once both profoundly emotional and thoughtful. The second movement Molto adagio provided a study in gesture and propulsive suasion. The Allegretto made much of approaching and receding dynamics, while the fugato on a dance tune was a treat. The Finale: Presto showcased a bouncing rhythm akin to Dvořák’s Dumky Trio. Programmatic brilliance was manifest in the ways chronologically earlier pieces lay the groundwork for later ones, and in making the case for a specifically Bohemian response to Viennese culture. Thrills and the excitement swept the crowd. That alone made a compelling argument for the Pavel Haas Quartet to return to Boston soon. hopefully with music by Haas or even Smetana.