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The Pavel Haas Quartet gives their third San Francisco Performances recital

Detail from an 1804 portrait of Beethoven
by W.J. Mähler, from Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Prague-based Pavel Haas Quartet (violinists Veronika Jarůšková and Marek Zwiebel, violist Pavel Nikl, and cellist Peter Jarůšek) gave their third recital for San Francisco Performances. They prepared a program in reverse chronological order, beginning with the Slavic connotations of Dmitri Shostakovich and Antonín Dvořák and following the intermission with the second of the three quartets (Opus 59, Number 2 in E minor) that Ludwig van Beethoven composed in 1806 and dedicated to Count Andrey Razumovsky, serving at the time as the Russian ambassador to Vienna. This provided an Eastern European tone for the entire evening, well suited to the ensemble’s Czech base of operations.

Beethoven’s quartet definitely deserved to stand alone in the second half of the evening. It is the only one of the Opus 59 quartets in a minor key, and one can appreciate the extent to which it must have challenged performers in Beethoven’s time. It opens with a bold cadence presaging the possibility that rhetorical gestures might overwhelm the usual structure involving the interplay of thematic material. Beethoven had taken a similarly bold approach the previous year (1805) in his Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony. However, that symphony was in E-flat major; and the opening two chords provided a kick-start for the clearly defined and energetic triadic theme that would follow. The E minor introduction precedes far less certain motifs that only vaguely manage to gel into themes.

Last night’s performance demonstrated a clear appreciation of the extent to which rhetoric, rather than thematic vocabulary, dominated the unfolding of this quartet across its four movements. Whether it involved the sharp gestures punctuating the uncertain motifs of the opening movement or the restless syncopations of the Allegretto scherzo movement, this was an interpretation in which each phrase was meticulously shaped to suade the listener with techniques that Cicero would have admired. The result was a riveting account, grounded in a firm command of not only Beethoven’s technical demands but also a clear understanding of his quest for new logical strategies for composition.

The Dvořák quartet, Opus 51 in E-flat major, that preceded the intermission also involved a personal quest for an underlying logic. However, in this case the logic involved the composer’s celebration of his own Bohemian identity. Thus the second movement provides yet another instance of Dvořák exploring the radical mood shifts of the dumka form, while much of the thematic material (in this case distinctly thematic) draws upon traditional dance forms. One could wax poetic and call this the colorful sunset that preceded Beethoven’s dark night that would follow the intermission. There was certainly no shortage of light and joy in last night’s performance, leading at least this listener to wish that more string quartets would more often consider choosing it instead of the more familiar Opus 96 in F major (“American”) quartet.

The program began with Shostakovich’s first quartet, his Opus 49 in C major. Shostakovich’s widow called his string quartets a “diary, the story of his soul;” but it is important to realize that this first quartet was not published until after his fifth symphony (Opus 47 in D minor). That symphony, in turn, had been Shostakovich’s effort to recover the good graces of the Soviet authority after his denunciation, brought about in reaction to his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. However, while Opus 47 was overloaded with broad-brush strokes of patriotic loyalty (at least on the surface), Opus 49 may be described as subdued unto an extreme. One might almost take its opening movement as the attempt of a weakened man to recover his capacity of speech after having been violently silenced.

Opus 49 could thus be considered as a radical shift in rhetorical capacity away from both the emphatic gestures of Beethoven’s Opus 59 and the sunlight of Dvořák’s Opus 51. The performers recognized this distinction, performing Opus 49 with an almost understated approach, allowing the listener to draw his/her own conclusions about the psychological dispositions of the composer behind this music. On the one hand there is an element of self-mocking humor, as if Shostakovich saw political value in expressing his own meekness in the face of Soviet authority. On the other hand, however, this could be a well-crafted coded message of just how powerful and soul-consuming that authority could be. These may not have been the first pages in the story of Shostakovich’s soul, but last night’s performance made it clear that they were still significant pages.

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