The Pavel Haas Quartet has earned a reputation as a world class ensemble, especially in the performance of the romantic era giants of Germany and Eastern Europe. Their performances of Dvořák and Brahms, especially, may have no parallel. The Quartet, founded in 2002 and based in Prague, takes its name from the Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944), who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt in 1941 and died at Auschwitz three years later. The current personnel are Veronika Jarüšková and Marek Zwiebel, violins, Pavel Nikl, viola, and Peter Jarüšer, cello. The ensemble was brought to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium by Duke Performances and the Chamber Arts Society.

The program opened with the Quartet No. 64 in D, Op. 76, No. 5, of Joseph Haydn. It is sometimes nicknamed “Largo” because of the overwhelming nature of the second movement, which is undoubtedly the core of this quartet; weighty, almost reaching into romanticism, it gives us a rare glimpse into the emotional side of this usually highly structured and staid composer. It is in the key of F sharp, which gives it a strange unearthly sonority; with no open string foundation, it yields a sort of floating dream-like sensation. The movement is marked Cantabile e mesto, (singing and sad). It starts and mostly continues with an achingly sad melody in the first violin. Perhaps this is Haydn revealing to us some of the emotional tenderness he had experienced whereas, in his seventies near the end of his long creative journey, his feelings were only memories.

The Pavel Haas Quartet rendered this movement with utmost sensitivity. Tender, almost passionate at times, its sonorities were laden with human emotion. I found myself wondering what words might have accompanied – what kind of thoughts might have been in Haydn’s mind as he penned these notes. There are no real clues. We have just the music itself.

The first movement is also remarkable in that it is not in sonata form but rather seems to be a character piece; perhaps, it has been suggested, it describes the history of the string quartet. It begins with well-behaved four-part harmony beneath a cheerful 6/8 melody. As it progresses, it is embellished with more and more complex elements. Finally it segues into a driving allegro full of fugal devises and ever-more-insistent repeated notes adding volume and intensity. With its final assault of double-stopping, it is about as near to orchestral grandeur as a quartet can reach.

In spite of have written hundreds of minuet movements, Haydn frequently amazes us by finding new and inventive ways of keeping the form fresh. Here he put the dance into a rather serious mold, and the contrasting trio section features a cello solo in the lower register. The finale, a presto, is Haydnesque to the core, with a little fragment of a folk dance tune played with wit and driving force to the end. This quartet is no little ditty, made accessible to the amateur players of the Esterhazy circle. Its demanding technical and musical skill requires seasoned professionals. This performance was something special, displaying exquisite sonic beauty, a masterful sense of ensemble and a vivid interpretation of one of the great musical geniuses of all time.

Dvořák’s “Slavonic” Quartet in D-Flat, Op. 51 was next. The immense popularity of the composer’s colorful Slavonic works of the 1870s, the Slavonic Dances and Rhapsodies, the Moravian Duets, and so on, led to him being type-cast as a composer of Bohemian novelties, and there was at first little interest in his more substantial compositions, so the first violinist of the then-famous Florentine Quartet asked Dvořák to write a “Slavonic work” for the group. Composed between Christmas Day 1878 and spring of 1879, the String Quartet No. 10 is the result of that commission.

Like so many of Dvořák’s mature string quartets, the charms of this piece go far beyond the superficial attractions of its folk-music colorations. For example, the opening of the first movement is perfectly relaxed, and the main tune and its bouncing, dance-like counterpart vie for attention. The dance tune seems to have gained the victory when it is selected to begin the recapitulation; but when all is said and done it is the calm first tune that draws the movement to a close.

The most obviously Slavonic movement of the quartet is the second, labeled Dumka. The word, of Ukrainian origin, implies a short piece with a melancholy flavor, sometimes alternating with a more rapid section, in this case a furiant. Both are dance forms native to Dvořák’s homeland.

The third movement is a romanza in B flat, one of Dvořák’s loveliest thoughts. Dance is again the germ from which the Allegro assai finale grows, a lively two-step coloring the movement’s sonata-form landmarks. The silky-smooth playing was impressive, as was the seamless passing of phrases from one instrument to another.

Czech dance-forms return in the finale, which is based on the rhythm of the skocna. The cheerful opening melody is contrasted with a second element of a more staid mold, and the movement includes a fascinating polyphonic treatment of the thematic material. The performance was characterized especially by a rich blended sound interspersed with impassioned solos and two-and three-part passages.

The closing work was Johannes Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2. Along with No. 1, this quartet was completed during the summer of 1873 and published that autumn. They are dedicated to his friend Theodor Billroth. Brahms repeatedly had these works privately performed, after which he would sometimes do extensive rewriting. He was 40 years old at the time of publication. Brahms regarded the string quartet as a particularly important genre. He reportedly destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published.

What we have in this quartet, then, is a work of advanced harmony and unprecedented completeness, highly unified thematically, with each movement derived from a tiny motif. It is generally lyrical but culminates in a dramatic and propulsive finale.

The performance was strikingly energetic and brought the members of the audience to their feet with calls and vigorous applause. For an encore, the Pavel Haas Quartet played the charming Dvořák Waltz in A, Op. 54, No. 1.