Haas; Janácek String Quartets

How to follow an Award-winner? Why, produce a disc that is just as great

Author: 
Rob Cowan

Haas; Janácek String Quartets

  • String Quartet No. 1, 'The Kreutzer Sonata'
  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 3

To describe a CD as musically important is to court a certain level of controversy (there are always other causes lobbying on the sidelines) but I’ll stick my neck out and claim extreme importance for this particular release. Its Gramophone Award-winning predecessor coupled the second string quartets of Haas and Janácek, superbly played and including optional percussion in Haas’s finale (11/06). Haas’s Second (subtitled From the Monkey Mountains) is an amazing piece, but I’m tempted to call the Third a masterpiece. It is both more concise and more tautly argued than the Second, less a journey into fantastical realms than an urgent, astringent drama, rhythmically driven (the dissonant opening gestures tear jaggedly across a constant pulse) and intensely heartfelt: the weeping cello at 3'56" into the first movement humbles its colleagues into tearful submission. And no wonder, given that the Quartet was composed in 1938 when Haas and his family were already marked for tragedy as part of a racially mixed community where an active Nazi faction was ready to pounce. Haas was destined for Auschwitz (where he was killed in 1944) and although it would be fanciful to read prophecy into the pages of this marvellous and varied work, the candour and emotional unrest that it expresses have inevitable associations. The longest movement is the last, a theme with variations which closes with a brief but pungent fugue and at times seems prophetic of Prokofiev’s folk-derived Second Quartet of 1941.

The First Quartet (1921) plays for a continuous, action-packed 14 minutes and so impressed Haas’s mentor Janácek that he had it performed. Although less striking than the Third, the First inhabits a similar climate, where temperature and colour shift with a degree of rapidity that suggests Janácek’s influence, though Haas’s musical language has a softer edge. In the hands of the Pavel Haas Quartet Janácek’s own powerfully emotive First Quartet positively glows; one cannot but help ponder what Haas himself might have achieved had he too lived to compose at the “ripe old” age of 69! The Haas Quartet negotiate Janácek’s fervid narrative without over-playing the drama, and they obviously relish its novel and occasionally abrasive sound world. It’s a very useful coupling, not only musically appropriate but evidence that the Pavel Haas Quartet can cut the mustard as successfully in standard repertoire as in the Haas rarities. This is a superb release that deserves not merely to bask in the reflected glory of its predecessor, but to share in it. The sound is first-rate.

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