- Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 1
- Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108
- Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, “From My Life”
If you haven’t yet heard the Pavel Haas Quartet, buckle your seat belt. This smart, incisive group from Prague with an ultra-warm sound and a sure sense of rhythmic play has been collecting accolades by the fistful ever since they burst onto the international scene six years ago.
At a point when most young quartets would still be thrilled to be dubbed “promising,” their work was being instead called “definitive” in a Diapason d’Or of the Year award for their album of Prokofiev’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 — and the Times of London had anointed them “the world’s most exciting string quartet.” Last year, the quartet (violinists Veronika Jarusková and Eva Karova, violist Pavel Nikl and cellist Peter Jarusek) won the ultra-prestigious Recording of the Year prize at the Gramophone Awards for their album of Dvorák’s String Quartets Op. 106 and Op. 96, “American.”
For this concert, the quartet bridges the Romantic era with the 20th century in intriguing fashion. First up is Tchaikovsky‘s folkish First Quartet, which was written in a hurry simply to earn the composer some money. Yet the slow movement had no less than Leo Tolstoy weeping at a performance at the Moscow Conservatory. (In his diary, Tchaikovsky wrote: “Never in my life have I felt so flattered and proud of my creative ability as when Leo Tolstoy, sitting next to me, heard my Andante with tears coursing down his cheeks.”)
The Haas Quartet juxtaposes the Tchaikovsky with Shostakovich‘s brief and elegaic Seventh String Quartet, which he wrote in 1960 in memory of his first wife, Nina Varzar, who had died quite suddenly of cancer six years before. Theirs had not been an easy pairing — after just two years of marriage, Shostakovich was frequently seen out in public with a 20-year-old mistress — but the two ultimately reconciled and had a daughter, Galina, although they both continued to have relationships outside the marriage. Despite, or perhaps because of those tangled circumstances, Shostakovich’s quartet in her memory is one of his more enigmatic discourses.
The evening ends with Bedrich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1, subtitled “From My Life.” Written after the Czech composer had lost his hearing due to a syphilis infection, Smetana wrote this four-movement work as a musical autobiography. The piece moves from the jovial conviviality that represents the composer’s youth to the chilling joke that opens the fourth movement: The first violinist’s high, sustained harmonic E represents the omnipresent buzzing sound that plagued Smetana before his descent into deafness.