The Pavel Haas Quartet and Boris Giltburg's recording of Dvořák's Quintets has won the 2018 Gramophone Chamber Award. This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Gramophone
We have been at it for two hours, the Pavel Haas Quartet and I, poring over the original handwritten score of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No 2, Op 81. And still, we’re barely halfway through. It’s a scorching June day, and the very air, here in Prague’s Czech Museum of Music, feels sweaty. Yet that doesn’t stop these string players from combing through every page, remarking, in their characteristically boisterous way, on the tiniest discrepancies between Dvořák’s original markings and those in their own score.
This isn’t surprising, given that the 15-year-old Czech ensemble, together with the Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, are currently recording the work for Supraphon (their CD has just been released). Besides, with four Gramophone Awards to its name, including 2011 Recording of the Year for its 2010 disc of Dvořák string quartets, this group clearly likes to do things properly.
Its take on the Second Piano Quintet looks set to be another triumph. Not only is this one of the best-loved pieces in the chamber repertory, but it’s one with which these musicians have a particular affinity. ‘For us this music is instinctive,’ says the group’s cellist Peter Jarůšek. ‘It takes so much from the folk music of our country and the Czech language.’ Dvořák composed it in 1887, after abandoning an attempt to revise his First Piano Quintet, written 15 years earlier. What emerged was one of his most lyrical, apparently spontaneous works, and one that scores particularly high – even by this composer’s standards – on the feel-good scale. Giltburg explains: ‘It’s not like Janáček’s music, which is very dark. This piece is always optimistic and never depressing.’ Which makes it a joy to play, but less of a joy to describe, at least from Giltburg’s point of view: ‘I offered to write booklet notes for the work and then found that I couldn’t write anything. That’s partly because there aren’t many dramatic stories to tell about it. And it’s partly because there isn’t a lot of emotional drama in the piece itself.’ He continues: ‘There is a very sincere emotion here, one that is never meant for flaunting, but it’s not the same kind of thing as, say, Rachmaninov.’ If it does bear any resemblance to anything, he says, it’s the music of Mozart: ‘In the same way that it’s hard to talk about Mozart, it’s also hard to talk about Dvořák. Their work has that same kind of apparent simplicity.’
The problem is that simplicity doesn’t always come across in performance: ‘People sometimes complain that Dvořák is saccharine,’ says Veronika Jarůšková, first violinist with the quartet. ‘In fact, he isn’t at all, but so many musicians over-egg the emotion, and the music doesn’t need it – it’s beautiful enough.’ Her aim is to strip back the varnish. That might be why she is so keen to keep up the sense of momentum in the soulful Dumka and the ethereal trio of the third movement, where so many others have ladled on the rubato. And it might be why her analysis of the prayer-like chorale towards the end of the finale (track 4, 6'41" to 6'53") seems surprisingly prosaic: ‘This music reminds me of someone who has just had a good breakfast, and is in a good morning mood.’
Such an interpretation may sound easy to dream up, but according to Peter Jarůšek it is more difficult to convey: ‘Anyone can play in a clichéd way. I could play in this way while drunk at midnight. But in order to be really honest and make the line sound natural you have to think about every tiny thing.’ Added to this, the work is technically much harder than it sounds, owing, in part, to its textural complexity: ‘Like Janáček, Dvořák liked to layer up emotions,’ explains Jarůšková, ‘so you’ll find many places like letter E of the first movement, where the piano plays a tranquillo melody against a contrasting tension in the strings (track 1, 8'36" to 8'48").’
But whatever Dvořák may have demanded from his interpreters, it is no more than he demanded of himself. His original manuscript is full of revisions, mostly denoted by changes in ink colour. Some of these involve fairly major surgery: the tranquillo section towards the end of the finale (track 4, 6'53" to 7'04"), which contains one of the work’s most beautiful melodies, was inserted only after the first draft had been completed. Elsewhere, the corrections are microscopic: a fortissimo deflated to an ordinary forte; an espressivo thrown in for good measure. It just goes to show, as Jarůšková points out, that this was the product of a real perfectionist: someone who, even at the tail end of the compositional process, ‘was still thinking and rethinking’.
Not all of the revisions, however, have worked their way into the Pavel Haas Quartet’s score. And this provokes whoops of excitement from the players. ‘Look at this place!’ exclaims Jarůšek, as we reach the middle of the Dumka (track 2, 5'47" to 5'55"). ‘This is marked diminuendo, but in our score it is crescendo. If you crescendo, it is nice, because it is like an opening out to a climax. But diminuendo is also good – more intimate. And this is an intimate movement. Should we do that instead?’ Apparently, there is no definite answer, and that is just the point: even within his specific dynamic markings, Dvořák leaves a lot of questions unanswered. ‘When he says piano, what kind of piano does he have in mind?’ asks Jarůšková. ‘Is it depressed? Happy?’
She admits that this kind of ambiguity makes it hard to settle on an interpretation. Nevertheless, she has a system: ‘I’m always coming out with all sorts of stories about what I think the music is saying.’ She continues: ‘It’s important always to communicate – just as it is in a marriage.’ Here, she exchanges glances with Peter Jarůšek, who just happens to be her husband, and both burst out laughing. But her point is a serious one, as Giltburg insists: ‘This group’s approach is different from that of any other that I’ve worked with. They break everything down and discuss it with a level of detail that I might apply to my solo pieces, but that I’ve never in my life experienced in a chamber rehearsal.’
This makes for an extremely labour-intensive process, and yet, once these musicians have finished a recording they don’t linger over the results. ‘We don’t listen to our old CDs; for us they are history. They no longer exist,’ says Peter Jarůšek. In fact, listening to any music outside rehearsals is something that he does with a certain reluctance. ‘I went to a concert recently and escaped at the interval. They played well but the first half was enough. When you play all day, you don’t need any more.’ Evidently, for these instrumentalists, the joy of music is in the ‘doing’ of it, to a superhuman level of perfection. ‘Yes, you are tired at the end of the day’, Jarůšek admits, ‘but you are also happy.’