for the new album of Shostakovich quartets
by Katherine Cooper
It’s become something of a running joke in the Presto office that the Chamber Category of both the Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine Awards may as well be re-named ‘The Pavel Haas Quartet Prize’ these days – in what might well be a unique achievement, every one of the Prague-based ensemble’s recordings on the Czech label Supraphon has been in the running for a rosette from one or both publications, starting with their searing accounts of Janáček’s Intimate Letters and their namesake’s From the Monkey Mountains which scooped Best Newcomer at the BBCs in 2007. It was with an almost blasé sense of assurance, then, that I switched on their recording of Shostakovich's Second, Seventh and Eighth String Quartets a week or two ago – but whilst this new album would appear to be in little danger of breaking their winning streak, there’s nothing remotely routine or predictable about the music-making itself. What we have here is one of the bleakest and most beautiful recordings of the year, with all three quartets (particularly the much-recorded No. 8) approached with an immediacy that would make you swear that the ink was barely dry on the page.
Pavel Haas QuartetThe PHQ have bided their time before approaching this repertoire, but given their almost uncanny affinity with autobiographical dark nights of the soul (witness their Janáček and Smetana recordings) it was perhaps inevitable that they would eventually tackle Shostakovich, for whom the string quartet medium afforded sorely-needed respite from the all-seeing eye of the Stalinist regime and often functioned as what Boris Giltburg describes as ‘a kind of diary…for Shostakovich’s innermost thoughts and feelings’. In his excellent, insightful booklet-note, the Russian pianist (who recorded his own transcription of the Eighth Quartet several years ago, shortly before joining the Pavel Haas for their award-winning Dvořák) goes on to point out that the two outer works were ‘conceived on a near-symphonic scale’, and the quartet are in their element here on several levels: the imagination with which they sustain and develop musical arguments over relatively long stretches of time is coupled with an ability to produce a massive, quasi-orchestral sound when required, so much so that there were moments in the Eighth Quartet when I was convinced I was listening to the piece in Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra rather than to four individual players. Shostakovich famously composed the work shortly after capitulating to political pressure and joining the Communist Party, and the score is something of a Portrait of the Artist as a Broken Man, shot through with bitter quotations from his earlier orchestral works and the ill-fated opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - the PHQ summon such a range of colours and sonorities here that all these allusions spring fully to life, the desolate throwback to the Siberian sunrise in Lady Macbeth registering with particular poignancy in their hands.
It’s not just the sheer horse-power of their sound, though, that makes this recording so special, and indeed we’re a fair way into the album before the players have occasion to really dig into the strings and let the rosin fly – they open with the Second Quartet (composed towards the end of World War Two, sixteen years before the other two works on the album), which springs into life with an almost rustic swagger that has the players emulating a village band rather than an orchestral string section, and the long second-movement Recitative and Romanza (dominated by an almost entirely vibratoless, wonderfully improvisatory solo from First Violin Veronika Jarůšková) provides the first of many instances of the Quartet’s ability to pare their collective and individual sounds back to almost nothing without ever losing clarity or focus. That glacial, numb quality eventually reaches its devastating apotheosis in the final stretches of the Eighth, where the sound fades to black so imperceptibly that after first hearing I realised I’d been sitting in silence for a good minute after the recording had finished. But such is the emotional impact of these performances that you’ll most likely find yourself needing to do the same.
Presto Classical, 1st November 2019