The Pavel Haas Quartet (Veronika Jarůšková – violin, Marek Zwiebel – violin, Pavel Nikl – viola, Peter Jarůšek – cello) have announced their new album, featuring Bedřich Smetana’s String quartets No. 1 and No. 2 (SU 4172–2).
The recording, to be released by Supraphon on 17th April, is part of the ensemble’s singular creative line and possesses the time-proven qualities of their performance artistry: refined sound, wonderful interplay, bold expression, emotional engagement. Over the 13 years of their musical activities, the Pavel Haas Quartet have garnered a host of prestigious accolades, including winning the Prague Spring International Competition, BBC Music Magazine’s Chamber Choice, the MIDEM Classical Award and three Gramophone Awards, “classical music Oscars”.
Our interview with the quartet revealed a remarkable accord in opinion and formulation, hence we could attribute the answers to the questions to everyone present.
Why did you opt for Smetana’s quartets? Weren’t you discouraged by the fact that they had previously been recorded by many other ensembles?
Primarily owing to their being beautiful pieces of music. We don’t overly concern ourselves with who has already recorded something. Every disc we make represents a culmination, a rounding off of a certain process. That has been the case of all our albums. We first explore and rehearse the respective compositions, then play them at concerts for some time to let them mature to the full, thus giving rise to our particular take on them. Then the time comes to record them. That also applies to Smetana’s quartets, which we have performed for years.
How do you perceive the „From My Life“ quartet?
The composer’s personal input is especially palpable in the piece. Therefore it was difficult for us in musical terms. But it is not an easy composition when it comes to the technique either; it has its intonation stumbling blocks, primarily in its second movement. It clearly reveals – and this applies to both of the quartets – that Smetana was above all a pianist, hence the texture corresponds more to the piano than the string instruments.
The structure of piano playing is particularly noticeable in the inner parts, not entirely accommodated to strings. As a result, Smetana’s pieces are somewhat more difficult to perform than, for instance, Dvořák’s works, since Dvořák, as a violist, had a greater affinity to strings. But Smetana is not alone in this respect; it is similar with Beethoven, a pianist too.
Smetana referred to the content a lot, describing that which he wanted to say in his work. Did it inspire you, or did you strive to express yourselves in your own way?
Smetana’s comments cannot be ignored. They are the major indicia, the information channel for our approach to the piece. When anything like that exists, we always consider it important. It would be easier for us if there were such indicia for every composition we perform. And they play a particularly significant role in the case of a work as fundamentally autobiographical as From My Life.
Are such „references“ common?
No, it’s rather rare. You don’t find it with many composers, particularly in their early periods. Beethoven, for instance, represents an interesting case: he bequeathed us plenty of letters in which he wrote about his works, but we are often perplexed, not having an inkling as to what precisely he had in mind. Then we have to seek out when he wrote it, what he was going through at the time, what it may reflect. As regards Smetana, it was plain, absolutely clear, hence binding for us.
Perhaps every Czech quartet has personally faced up to Smetana’s music somehow. Has your interpretation brought anything new?
We didn’t aim to come up with something new at all costs. If that had been our objective, we would have had to listen to all the available recordings and explore that which everyone had put into them. We wanted to approach the pieces in the way we feel them right now. The recording reflects how we understood and grasped the compositions in this period. If we were to record them 20 years down the road, they would sound different, as we, and the time, would be different too. And we also tried to enjoy the music. And we did, as it is wonderful.
You don’t seem to play anything that you yourselves don’t enjoy.
We hope that is the case. It definitely holds true with our CDs. Otherwise they wouldn’t sound convincing. At concerts we can also play something not entirely digested, not appropriately rehearsed, something the organiser has asked us to perform, but we don’t like doing it. We generally play the pieces we ourselves want to play. This is absolutely clear with the recordings, since it concerns personal statements.
You have paid great attention to the Czech quartet classics, you have virtually mapped out the territory by now…
Not quite, we still have plenty of Dvořák’s music to deal with, for instance!
What are your immediate plans?
Our next recording won’t feature Czech music. In about a year’s time, Supraphon should release our disc of Shostakovich works. In the near future, we will perform Czech music at concerts; we are now preparing Dvořák’s String Quartet in D minor, opus 34, which will be new in our repertoire. We are yet to explore a lot of stuff. So when it comes to having Czech music “mapped”, this only perhaps applies to the pivotal pieces. We will also embark upon Bohuslav Martinů’s String Quartet No. 3, which we have not previously played as a quartet. And soon we will perform Martinů’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. At the end of April, we will play Erwin Schulhoff’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra at the Bodenseefestival in Germany.
In recent years, you have perhaps made a disc annually.
Almost, but not quite. We recorded a Schubert album in 2013, the Smetana CD should have come into being earlier, but it is only being released now, and the disc of Shostakovich’s quartets should be issued in June 2016 or thereabouts. Although we deem Shostakovich one of the most essential composers, we haven’t yet got around to recording them. We look forward to it. The disc too will be the result of a certain ripening process, which is under way at the concerts. They are strong and splendid works – Quartets Nos. 8 and 10, and the Piano Quintet, which we will record with Denis Kozhukhin.
You have mostly chosen emotionally bold pieces, which seem to address you the most. What is your decision-making like?
We plan out our repertoire two years in advance; every one of us has certain works she/he would like to play. The actual choice of music is based on our natural selection. We don’t want to play anything that would go against the grain. The quartet repertoire is extensive; you’d be hard pressed to find a major composer who hasn’t written a string quartet. And most of them contain the composer’s vehement emotional statement… The quartet is said to be the most difficult form to write, perhaps precisely because it is connected with the composer’s personal, intimate statement. Consequently, we too opt for high-quality works, which in most cases are also extremely emotional.
You concert schedule, especially abroad, is very ample and demanding. Aren’t you worried that it will take its toll?
Well, we do have plenty ahead at the moment. We’ve received offers that you simply can’t turn down. We will also be going to Australia; the travel time is insane, but at least we’ll be staying in one place. But we deem some periods sacred – as regards time off. At Christmas, for instance, we never travel anywhere and have at least two weeks off. And a whole month in the summer, too. But if we are to meet our obligations and retain a certain standard in our own eyes, we have to maintain the tempo. When we’re not travelling, we’re rehearsing, intensively. We have to learn a lot of compositions. Fortunately, we also play many pieces that are part of our core repertoire, so we only have to dust them off. Of course, we don’t just want to rehash that which we know, therefore we add new works and extend our repertoire.
Which of your upcoming trips are you looking forward to most?
Perhaps Australia and the Bodenseefestival
An encore at the end: What are your favourite encores?
We pay quite a lot of attention to this matter; we always seek the most suitable one, trying to avoid an encore that would devalue that which was heard before. Our favourite encores include the lovely, charming Waltz from Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti, or Dvořák’s beautiful, elegant Waltz.
It also depends on the concert programme.
Absolutely, and the question arises of whether to conceive the encore as part of the programme, as being related to it, or to play something totally different. When we conclude a concert of Czech music, specifically Janáček, part of Pavel Haas’s String Quartet No. 2 fits the bill perfectly. Or when the entire programme is somewhat gloomy, we can add something lightened, let’s say, a movement from Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet, so the audience leave in an upbeat frame of mind. But it is really difficult to choose an encore after some compositions. One such is Beethoven’s Great Fugue in B flat major – I really cannot imagine what should be added after it. This also applies to Smetana, whose ending is so bold, intense and wistful that it simply can’t be followed by some light-footed waltz.
Which brings us back to your Smetana album. What does it mean for you?
We hold Smetana in high regard indeed. We strove to express that which he put into his compositions, emotionally in particular, and that which he himself might have liked to hear from us.
PAVEL HAAS QUARTET – CONCERTS
April – July 2015
9th – 12th April – Sydney (AU) – Musica Viva Festival
25th April – 25th May – Bodenseefestival – RESIDENCE (DE)
25th April – Friedrichshafen (DE) – Opening concert with the SWR Sinfonieorchester
30th April – Ravensburg (DE) – Festsaal Weiβenau
2nd May – Meersburg (DE) – Neues Schloss, Spiegelsaal
3rd May – Tettnang (DE) – Barockschloss, Rittersaal
8th May – Konstanz (DE) – Konzil
10th May – Konstanz (DE) – Konzil
13th May – Konstanz (DE) – Konzil
14th May – Münsterligen (DE) – Klosterkirche
14th May – Münsterligen (DE) – Klosterkirche
15th May – Münsterligen (DE) – Klosterkirche
18th May – Innsbruck (AT) – Tiroler Landeskonservatorium
21st May – Salem (DE) – Bibliothek
23rd May – Achberg (DE) – Barockschloss, Rittersaal