Monday, March 27, 2017

An All-Czech Program from a Prague-Based String Quartet

The Prague-based Pavel Haas Quartet (PHQ) has made regular appearances in San Francisco for some time and has become a favorite visiting ensemble among those who take their chamber music seriously. While past performances have been arranged by San Francisco Performances, yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre PHQ appeared in San Francisco for the first time under the auspices of Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF). This was also our first opportunity to listen to violist Radim Sedmidubský, who replaced Pavel Nikl some time after the last PHQ performance here in October of 2015. The other members remain the same, founder and first violinist Veronika Jarůšková, her husband Peter Jarůšek on cello, and second violinist Marek Zwiebel.

The program consisted entirely of music by Czech composers. The three pieces were played in reverse chronological order, and only the earliest of these was written in the composer’s native land.  That was Bedřich Smetana’s first string quartet, composed in 1876 after the onset of deafness and given the programmatic title “From My Life.” Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major was written in 1893, during the time the composer spent in the United States; and the most recent composition, Bohuslav Martinů’s third quartet was written in 1930, about seven years after he left Prague and moved to Paris.

Listening to PHQ is a bit like eavesdropping on a conversation in which each conversant has his/her own distinctive opinions but there is always common ground on which agreement is established. Such an approach well serves the Smetana quartet, which is a product of deeply-felt autobiographical recollections. Each instrumental voice seems to draw upon a different side of the composer’s character.

The opening theme for viola is particularly assertive, suggesting the boldness with which Smetana chose to make his first impressions, while the cello captures his more obstreperous side, particularly in the highly eccentric recollection of a polka in the second movement. Jarůšková, on the other hand, has a thoroughly astonishing command of soft extremes in her dynamic range. This allows her to begin a theme with a whisper and then gradually “raise her voice” to reveal the full expressiveness of that theme. Her technique allowed for a particularly hushed quality in the third movement of the quartet; but her part also requires her to interrupt the final movement with that high E played with harmonic bowing through which Smetana documented the onset of tinnitus that foreshadowed his deafness. The result was an account of Smetana’s score whose dramatic connotations were particularly well-defined by the personality types evoked by each of the PHQ members.

Dvořák’s Opus 96, on the other hand, was much sunnier in its disposition. However, here, too, Jarůšková brought a freshness to this particularly familiar music through her impeccable command of the full breadth of dynamic range. Thus, once again, she could introduce a theme as a hint of a suggestion and then let it unfold with the richness of some exotic flower.

That command of dynamics was particularly crucial in the execution of Martinů’s quartet. This piece begins with hushed whispers from which themes first emerge only as fragments. By 1930 Martinů had been involved in a variety of avant-garde projects in Paris; but the quartet marked a move to neoclassicism, which could well have been his own way of responding to a similar move by Igor Stravinsky about a decade earlier. Stravinsky, of course, did not think very much of string quartets, either the ensemble or its repertoire, while Martinů was far more sympathetic. Indeed, there is a prevailing rhetoric of cheerfulness that suffuses the third quartet’s three movements, almost as if he was reflecting on the high spirits that must have been experienced when Joseph Haydn played second violin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played viola in string quartet gatherings with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (first violin) and Johann Baptist Wanhal (cello). From this point of view, PHQ could bring their own rich sense of individual personalities to bear on this twentieth-century perspective of eighteenth-century music-making.

As might be guessed, the entire program was enthusiastically received by the CMSF audience. That was sufficient to persuade PHQ to take an encore. They returned to Dvořák to play the first (in A-flat major) of his two Opus 54 waltzes for string quartet. This selection had an easy-going salon-like feel, yet another reminder that a string quartet is as much a social encounter as a musical one.

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