SCHUBERT String Quintet. String Quartet No 14, ‘Death and the Maiden’
This is good. Very good. Acclaim and the Pavel Haas Quartet are familiar bedfellows – after all, they did win Gramophone’s Record of the Year for their Dvo∑ák two years ago. But this is their first recording that really steps into a crowded marketplace. They represent the best qualities of the Czech tradition – warmth, sonorousness, individuality, intensity; but what’s striking here is their fearless risk-taking, their fervency and the absolute confidence with which they propel you through these two masterpieces. In the Quintet they have the perfect partner in cellist Danjulo Ishizaka – and there’s no sense of a quartet plus one, which hampered the Takács Quartet’s recent reading.
Their tempi are unfailingly right to the extent that comparisons, for once, seem almost irrelevant. And the slow movement of the Quintet is aching but never emotes superficially; the way the players withdraw the sound at its close is absolutely mesmerising. The Belcea rein in the emotions to a greater degree (compare them at around nine minutes into this movement) but the Pavel Haas – with slightly more dragging, vulnerable phrasing from the first violin – are insanely memorable. They also judge transitions beautifully so that the two works unfold in a completely natural way: just sample the finale of the Quintet, at the point where the second idea, with its slightly wincing Viennese gaiety, gradually yields to the return of the troubled opening idea.
In the Quartet, too, there is much to admire: in the spectral closing minutes of the first movement; or in the slow-movement variations, where you’re held rapt as the first violin and then the cello take centre stage, and the ricocheting rhythms of the following variation – which can sound like gunshots in some performances – display a delicacy and a sense of dance. The crazed tarantella that closes the quartet is a tour de force, raw, visceral and with an emotional immediacy that is almost unbearable. Such is the intensity of the playing that by the end of the disc you, too, are quite exhausted. But that’s perhaps how it should be.
Will these highly personal interpretations stand the test of time as effectively as the slightly cooler readings from the Belcea and, in Death and the Maiden, the Takács? From this proximity it’s impossible to say, but I’d say the odds are pretty good.