The Pavel Haas Quartet’s Electrifying Dvořák

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DVOŘÁK: Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81.* String Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97+ / Pavel Haas Quartet; *Boris Gilburg, pn; +Pavel Niki, vla / Supraphon SU4195-2

Over the last two decades or so, Felix Mendelssohn and Antonin Dvořák have slowly become among my favorite composers, but in the latter’s case I’ve found some music in his output (like most of his string quartets except the “American”) that I find lacking in drama and substance. Happily, these two quintets are among his finest compositions.

Indeed, the first movement of the former is almost a mini-drama in itself, vacillating as it does between a dreamy, lyrical melody that sounds suspiciously like Richard Strauss’ Wiegenlied (although, since Strauss’ song came later, he was the one doing the copying) and intensely dramatic passages in the minor. The Haas quartet, with guest Boris Gilburg on piano, play this with a perfect sense of the duality of the music and a wonderfully intense attack. At the 8:30 mark, the lyrical theme is suddenly heard in the minor, which completely changes its effect on the listener, and it doesn’t last long before the drama picks up again. The way the musicians explode in these dramatic sections is absolutely breathtaking; the underlying motor rhythms taking on a life of their own, driving the music forward explosively. If the first movement sounds like Wiegenlied, the second (“Dumka”) reminded me of Eden Ahbez’s classic pop tune Nature Boy. It’s an almost sad-sounding piece, and the quartet’s treatment of it is sensitive and well-shaded. Once again there is an alternate theme at a quicker tempo, but here it is not quite as fast or quite as dramatic in scope. There’s a remarkable passage where Dvořák changes the key three times in the course of two bars. The one real emotional outburst occurs at the 7:15 mark, the music literally exploding with passion. By contrast, the third-movement “Scherzo (furiant)” is jolly and stress-free, despite vacillating between the major and minor. The last movement, though ostensibly in the home key of A major, vacillates harmonically in a quite startling fashion. Here the good vibes of the third movement are combined with some minor-key drama, though never quite as angst-filled as the first two movements.

The string quintet also sets a mood that seems to be quite placid but bursts forth emotionally as it goes along. This music, however, sounded much more Czech in character to me than that of the piano quintet, which seemed built around Germanic ideas. Here, too, Dvořák integrates the outbursts into the fabric of the music more completely, making them sound (as they are) logical in their progression and development. Bits of the music here put me in mind of the “New World” Symphony without ever really quoting it. The long central development section, starting around 4:50, was particularly well-thought-out and interesting. In this piece, too, Dvořák’s writing seemed to me much more “orchestral” in its voicing; he seldom plays the violins against the violas or cello, or the two violins against each other. In this respect only the work is similar to the great Schubert string quintet in C. Because of this, it was more difficult for me to gauge the playing of guest violist Pavel Niki since he blended right in with the quartet.

I found the second movement pleasant and lyrical without being particularly inventive. Here, Dvořák seemed to be content to fall back on prior forms, although the music was well written and did not merely “coast.” The third-movement “Larghetto,” set in B major, is more interesting, falling through a harmonic trap into A-flat major for the secondary theme. Again, Dvořák shifts gears rhythmically, giving us a peppy alternate theme; then, when he returns to the slow theme for the variations, he employs a number of striking devices, among them a vacillation between major and the minor as well as rapid sixteenths played by the cello with the edge of the bow. We arrive at A minor for yet another variation on the theme, then somehow find ourselves in A-flat minor once again. The most violent emotional outburst, however, occurs at 8:45, after a pause that almost sounds like the end of the movement. It goes on from there, easing up on the tension while developing the theme once again. The final movement, back in the home key of E-flat, also shifts harmonic gears frequently, this time evoking drama with a sudden shift to G minor. The music gains interest from the very creative ideas that Dvořák throws in as it goes along, somehow tying them all together neatly when they could have ended up as disparate elements in the movement. Edgy string tremolos enter the picture, ramping up the energy of the movement, gradually, to an almost fever pitch.

The only comparison I can make, since they are the only other performances I’ve heard, are to the Vlach Quartet Prague in the string quartet and to both the Vlach Quartet and Arthur Rubinstein with the Guarneri Quartet in the Piano Quintet. Vlach surprisingly underplays this music, making little of both the lyrical themes and the more dramatic moments; what sounds elegant and then explosive in Pavel Haas’ reading sounds tame and mild here. The Guarneti Quartet sounds lame and klunky in the lyrical theme, and also too reticent to cut loose in the dramatic moments…but then again, I’ve always hated Guarneri’s sound (muddy and indistinct) and style (lacking both rhythmic bounce and a sense of forward momentum) in everything they ever recorded (particularly their miserable set of the Beethoven Quartets), so that’s not too surprising for me.

These are clearly the preferred performances of these works for me.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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