Coping with crisisA performance by the Pavel Hass Quartet – Veronika Jarůšková and Marek Zwiebel (violins), Luosha Fang (viola), and Peter Jarůšek (cello) – closed out the Duke’s virtual Chamber Arts Series Friday night (in collaboration with the Chamber Arts Society of Durham). According to the program notes, the quartet has “won five Gramophone and numerous other awards for their recordings” and “… their name (comes) from the Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944) who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt in 1941 and tragically died at Auschwitz three years later.”

The program consisted of two works: String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”), by Ludwig van Beethoven (Germany, 1770-1827) and the Concerto da Camera (String Quartet No. 7) by Bohuslav Martinů (Czech Republic, 1890-1959). George Gopen, the director of the Chamber Arts Society of Durham, welcomed the audience and provided some insights into the music we were about to hear.

Beethoven wrote the Op. 95 in 1810 and gave the subtitle “Quartetto serioso,” probably because of the terse first movement and the tempo marking of the third: Allegro assai vivace ma serioso (Cheerful, very fast but serious). Although the composer stated in a letter to a friend that “The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public,” he subsequently published it in 1816.

The striking opening motive is dramatic and arresting as was the Haas’ performance. Violent gestures are juxtaposed against tender passages and striking silences give credence that this is, indeed, serious stuff. Passion and power were matched with tender playing in this performance.

The second movement Allegretto ma non troppo begins in an easy, flowing, and gracious fashion; more serious, imitative sections add emotional darkness. The Allegretto moves directly into the 3rd movement, a fiery dance filled with jerky rhythms and sudden pauses. A calmer, more lyric section asserts itself several times, providing some relief.

The finale, which begins with a slow introduction, is primarily an essay on scurrying, with the lower strings doing some serious sawing. The entire movement is as strange as the rest of quartet, with Beethoven arbitrarily forcing disparate moods together. A short coda, in a major key, provides an amazing, exhilarating conclusion.

One was impressed with the Haas’ commitment and fine ensemble. While individual lines were easily heard, the four musicians breathed and played together as a single unit. Marvelous ensemble.

If one had to categorize Martinů’s style, one would certainly point out the influence of Neo-classicism, particularly that of Stravinsky. The 7th String Quartet’s opening Poco allegro is an energetic thing brimming with good humor. The Hass immediately dug into the exuberant mood. Independent lines intermingle with unisons between two instruments or the entire ensemble, and there are a couple of relaxed moments that provide contrast. One could certainly draw some parallels between this quartet and the Beethoven because of the sudden changes of mood and texture and the virtuosity displayed by the Hass Quartet.

The Andante is a lovely, expressive, lyric essay with melodic lines taken up by each instrument. A distinctive middle section contains more flowing passages. The main theme of the finale Allegro vivo gallops forward. Several contrasting interludes are heard through the course of the movement which ends with dynamic energy.

The filming, which took place in Cermak Eisenkraft Gallery in Prague, provided an intimate atmosphere, with some wonderful artworks on the wall. The video highlighted the individual musicians when each was in the spotlight as well as capturing the entire ensemble in an engaging manner. The sound was not as resonant as one might have asked for, which sometimes created some minor intonation issues.

The Pavel Haas Quartet offered a haunting encore: the 3rd movement (“Moon and I” with a tempo marking Largo e misterioso) from composer Pavel Haas’ 2nd String Quartet (subtitled “Monkey Mountains,” a locale in the Moravian Mountains). The movement has much to recommend itself: slow but dramatic statements from violin and viola, lovely octaves from the upper three strings, and gorgeous melodies emanating from each member amid stunning textures. All of this was superbly revealed through the wonderful playing by the four musicians.

After hearing this movement, one was left thinking about how the history of music of the 20th century might have been radically changed had so many promising composers’ lives not been so brutally snuffed out by the Nazis during the Second World War. Some of the classical music of the second half of 1900 might have taken an incredibly different path.