Re:Source – The Pavel Haas Quartet Does Smetana
This backgrounder information is provided as a service to readers by Supraphon, which conducted this interview.
The Pavel Haas Quartet Does Smetana
Over their 13 years, The Pavel Haas Quartet has garnered many top honors, including three Gramophone Awards. Now they speak about their new album featuring Bedřich Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 and No. 2 (Supraphon recording SU 4172-2), released Apr 17, 2015.
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 with 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.
Facing the Smetana Challenge
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
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?
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. Our next recording won’t feature Czech music. In about a year’s time, Supraphon should release our disc of Shostakovich works.
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.
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 lighter, 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.
– Lukáš Kadeřábek, Supraphon; edited for length by Mary Matz, Opus Osm
Photo Credits: Top: Marco Borggreve; all others, The Pavel Haas Quartet website