Dallas — Because it fits so perfectly, I’ll borrow a term a colleague in the critical profession (David Fanning in The Gramophone) used to describe the playing of the Pavel Haas Quartet: “streamlined.”
This Quartet, founded in 2002 in the Czech Republic and named in honor of an early-20th-century Czech composer and Holocaust victim, performed Monday night at Caruth Auditorium on the Southern Methodist University campus as part of the Dallas Chamber Music Society’s subscription series; though not performing works of their namesake (which they have famously recorded), they kept the program in the Slavic family with music of Russian Dmitri Shostakovich and their Bohemian compatriot Antonín Dvořák.
The term “streamlined” fits this ensemble so neatly because they perform with a uniquely clean, low-vibrato, always on-target tone. There’s no distracting opulence of tone or evident ego here: the pristine timbre, joined with an unfailing precision and attention to musical expression, puts the focus on the composer and the musical content. And, in Monday’s concert, the music itself provided ample emotional intensity, especially when presented with the ensemble’s remarkable clarity.
Shostakovich saved his most intense personal statements—ranging from personal loss to rage against the Soviet machine—for the quartet genre. The Quartet No. 7, with which the program opened, was dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich’s first wife (and mother of his children), and opens with a lively dance-like tune introduced by the first violin. As often with Shostakovich, one is left wondering whether to find jollity, child-like innocence, or irony in the outwardly sprightly character; the opening movement closes, however, with unmistakable serenity, produced with lucid clarity by the Haas musicians. This work continues with the combination of floating mournful melodies winding amidst rolling accompaniments in the second movement and a passionate, fugal finale, showing off the ensemble’s precision before landing on a final F-sharp major chord.
More Shostakovich followed in the form of that composer’s Quartet No. 8, which opens with a mournful, lonely fugue—and intonation challenges that the Haas musicians met perfectly, gliding with perfect ensemble into the movement’s final, pianissimo unison G-sharp. Hence to the rapid-fire demands of furious second movement, with rapid passage-work punctuated with vicious (but precisely delivered) downbows. Shostakovich’s dark mixture of humor and desperation emerges dramatically in the central movement, a sort of mad folk dance; sustained sorrow reemerges in the two connected final movements, wherein the Haas Quartet’s devotion to exactitude of execution created an overwhelming effect.
The Haas players took a slightly richer tone to the Quartet No. 14 of Dvořák, navigating the moody romanticism of the extended introduction before launching into the muscular energy of the main theme and the Slavic nostalgia of the second. The ensemble’s razor-sharp technique and naturally authentic instinct for Slavic lyricism shone in the lively, folk-like second movement as well as in the tenderly elegiac third movement. A short, dark motif from the cello introduces the jubilant Finale, which, blossoming into good humor and Dvorakian grandeur, brought the evening’s profoundly emotional, beautifully played pilgrimage to a triumphant close.