The members of the Pavel Haas Quartet have said in interviews that they do not think being Czech helps them play the music of Czech composers. Nevertheless, that is where this excellent string quartet has had its greatest triumphs on disc, for the Supraphon label. At a Friday night concert, the Library of Congress, not surprisingly, featured them in quartets by Bohuslav Martinu and Antonin Dvorak. Since the group had to cancel its last U.S. tour, in 2013, this was its first local appearance since 2008.
Since that concert, also at the Library of Congress, the group has gone through a couple of changes for second violin. The musician currently in that seat, Marek Zwiebel, sounded as if he was fitting in beautifully, finding his place in the odd sounds of the opening of Martinu’s third string quartet. In this brief work of kaleidoscopic variety, the four musicians purred through elements of folk music and multi-metric structure, more intense dissonance in the second movement, and Stravinskyesque rhythmic savagery. One musician who has remained constant in this quartet is the superb violist, Pavel Nikl, whose gorgeous solos in the Martinu piece were a highlight.
The two Dvorak quartets, the tart Quartet No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 34, and the somewhat overexposed Quartet No. 12, Op. 96 (“American”), would not have been my choice for this group, not when Bedrich Smetana pieces, more from Martinu or works from the group’s namesake, Pavel Haas, were available. The group defied expectations in the Dvorak pieces, though, with first violinist Veronika Jaruskova holding back her sound in keeping with the ensemble. The second-movement “Alla Polka” of Quartet No. 9 was a sheer delight, a dance that got lost again and again in a sort of oneiric stasis. All four players excelled in “American” and then capped off the evening with an encore, a Dvorak waltz, Op. 54/1.
Downey is a freelance writer.