Pavel Haas Quartet makes magic in Ann Arbor debut
Let’s face it, courtesy of the University Musical Society, Ann Arbor classical music fans do not want for heart-throb quartets.
There’s the Emerson, friends for so long, locals refer to them as the Emersons, as if they were a family down the block. There’s the Takacs, regular visitors, constantly dazzling us with their vibrant energy. The Jerusalem, whose youthful players are as passionate as they are refined. The St. Lawrence, wowing us with quartets from Haydn to John Adams.
Wednesday night at Rackham Auditorium, UMS introduced a new quartet to make the heart beat faster and more sympathetically: the Pavel Haas Quartet, a young Czech ensemble now making its first major U.S. tour. This foursome—Veronika Jaruskova and Eva Karova, violin; Pavel Nikl, viola; and Peter Jarusek, cello—plays with such timbral imagination and tonal beauty, it didn’t take but a moment to be seduced by them.
It didn’t hurt that they opened their program in a place that other quartets might have chosen to end, with the Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1 in D Major. Still, we didn’t have to wait for the gorgeous, singing second movement to appreciate the way this group creates magic. The first movement was all grace and gentleness, with Jaruskova lofting the first violin melody silkenly just above the other voices. Here, as elsewhere in the evening and certainly through the Tchaikovsky, one was aware of how the group creates intimacy without resorting to whispering.
Czech repertoire, appropriately, was the calling card for the remainder of the concert. Yes, there was Smetana, the Quartet No. 1 in e minor, “From My Life.” It was rendered with clarity of intent and emotional depth, with room for lightheartedness in the wonderful second-movement polka. Cellist Jarusek was extraordinary.
But there was also music, equally programmatic, from a Czech composer far less known, the man whose name the quartet bears, Pavel Haas, murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
The second of his three quartets, “From the Monkey Mountains,” was on the bill. It’s really a quintet in the last movement, which incorporates percussion—and the fine percussionist Joseph Gramley, on the University of Michigan music faculty, joined with the group to play it.
Haas’ musical language in this 1925 work combines many different genres and sounds. You hear Moravian folk music, Jewish melodies, even jazz, particularly in the last movement. But in four movements that bear evocative titles—“Landscape,” “Coach, Coachman and Horse,” “The Moon and I,” and “Wild Night”—what was most striking was the sense of locomotion underlying each.
It’s as if the players of the quartet are strolling, or running, or galloping, and the panoramas that Haas would have us see arrive at our ears through the players' ambulation. The second violin, Karova, sets the walking pace in the first movement; in the second, the cello and viola slog and then speed, with the other players joining in to whinny and then career on by. “The Moon and I” is remarkable for the stillness of the scene and a simultaneous disquiet, a restlessness that comes from a body in motion—is it moon or man? In any case, the movement wanes just as that lunar orb does - silence takes over, just as blackness does in the sky.
The last movement is the wild ride promised by the title, with the percussion underlining the music’s dizzying rhythmic vitality. Everyone was having so much fun being wild that the five players reprised the last section of “Wild Ride” as an encore.