Tuesday 21 May 2024



VCHpresents Chamber
Victoria Concert Hall 
Sunday (19 May 2024) 

This review was first published on Bachtrack.com on 20 May 2024 with the title "Pavel Haas Quartet’s triumphant, all-Bohemian Singapore debut".

This has been a bumper year for Bohemian music in Singapore. Either visionary planning or pure happenstance might explain the performance glut, including Dvorak’s Piano Trio No.3 (by Aoi Trio, Japan) and Piano Quintet No.2 (More Than Music, Singapore), Smetana’s Piano Trio and Dvorak’s String Quintet No.2 (Singapore Symphony musicians), all within a space of few months. Now cue the Singapore debut of multiple Gramophone Award-winning Pavel Haas Quartet from Prague, undoubtedly the jewel in the crown. 

Established in 1992, its present iteration of violinists Veronika Jarůšková (the sole remaining founding member) and Marek Zwiebel, violist Šimon Truszka and cellist Peter Jarůšek showed exactly why the quartet’s recordings have been so highly rated. Live and in person, PHQ sounds even better. In Josef Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St Wenceslas” serving as a prelude, refined and smooth-as-silk playing was immediately apparent, from the opening viola voice and when the others joined in. Gossamer lightness soon built up arch-like in intensity, to a passionate climax resembling Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio. As Czech nationalism’s rallying cry during the Second World War, there could not have been a more poignant statement. 

The main programme showcased two autobiographical works, the first being Bedřich Smetana’s First String Quartet, “From My Life”, a heart-on-sleeve account of personal trials and tribulations. The opening E minor chord, resolute and defiant, set the dramatic tone, coming with brutal honesty without being histrionic. One could just admire and wallow in the rich sonorities, with suppleness and malleability of textures being added extras. The second movement’s Allegro moderato a la Polka was pure and unadulterated joy, punctuated by pauses which bear special significance later on. 

The slow movement was treated as the work’s vital beating heart, with lyrical solos from cello and first violin, and a big passionate chordal statement to hammer home the point. As the foursome literally flew out of the traps for the finale, what could put a halt to its irrepressible gaiety? The hitherto carefree ride would encounter that fateful pause, the terminal speed-bump, with Jarůšková’s violin “stricken” with high-pitched tinnitus. This was Smetana’s musical representation of irremediable deafness, borne of untreated syphilis. With this final damper, the work closed on subdued pizzicatos. In this unforgettable performance, PHQ showed what life was all about. 

The second autobiographical work was Leoš Janáček’s Second String Quartet or Intimate Letters, inspired by an unrequited love for a married woman 37 years his junior. The married Janáček wrote over 700 letters to Kamila Stösslová, whom he met in 1917, until his death eleven years later. Unlike Smetana, Janáček’s secrets were not so readily revealed. His stock-in-trade musical idiom, of repeated short motifs, harmonic dissonances, jagged ostinatos and a rare transcendent lyricism, would dominate in this four-movement underrated classic. 

Sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge) effects lent a wiry and uncomfortably edgy resonance, colouring the mood of the score. Also ear-catching were moments alternating between discordance, melody and whimsicality, seemingly random but reflecting the composer’s conflicted state of mind, flailing between turmoil and torment. While not an easy listen, PHQ’s virtuosity and unstinting advocacy made for a totally gripping experience. After so much freneticism, the sole encore was a welcome balm, in Dvorak’s Ó duše drahá jedinká (Thou Only, Dear One), the ninth of his Cypresses

This review is dedicated to the memory of Jiri Heger (1946-2023), former principal violist of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and true-blooded Bohemian. He would have absolutely loved this concert. 

Star Rating: *****

The original review on Bachtrack.com may be read here:

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