Review: Janacek and Smetana Quartets, Pavel Haas Quartet, Aldeburgh Festival, June 14

Both Smetana and Janacek were from Central Europe and both wrote two string quartets. It was, therefore, thoughtful planning to pair each composer’s first and second quartets in two short afternoon concerts at Aldeburgh Church on the first Saturday of the Festival.

The Pavel Hass Quartet, named after the Czech composer who died at Auschwitz in 1944, has established a considerable reputation since winning a major competition in Italy in 2005. Their exceptional coherence and unanimity of approach and style is immediately evident, and particularly suited to Janacek’s quartets. His style and sound is unique and compelling but the sharply contrasting moods and changes of pace can make the works appear episodic and the performance of the first quartet, good as it was, did not entirely overcome this. There was incisive, characterful playing from everyone and the controlled pianissimos and diminuendos were outstanding.

Smetana’s two quartets are more conventional in style, including some buoyant rustic dances but there are deep personal issues as well. The players beautifully captured the high spirits of the earlier quartet with crisp, bright tones and sharply articulated passage work. However, towards the end of the finale of the first quartet, a sudden, high harmonic intrudes – a sign of the composer’s incipient deafness. The timing of its entry was perfect and the effect, chilling. In a very real sense, the story is continued in Smetana’s second quartet, composed six years later but with the composer in mental and physical decline from syphilis. Nonetheless, the work burns with the urge to compose, even if the final result is less polished than before. Once again the players’ deep mutual rapport enabled them to reach the heart of the music and the audience was able to share the composer’s pleasure of his more lucid spells as well as the torment of his darker periods.

It was surely correct to close the second concert with Janacek’s fine and autobiographical second quartet, inspired by his passionate involvement with a younger woman in his later years. It contains striking passages for all parts, and every player distinguished themselves. When required, the emotional intensity was both gripping and draining but there were also moments of ethereal calm as well as an abrupt and incisive ending, superbly played by one of the outstanding quartets of today.

Gareth Jones

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