Pavel Haas Quartet

Schubert: Death and the Maiden; String Quintet

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The Pavel Haas Quartet, named for a Czech Jewish composer killed during the Holocaust, has emerged as a major new chamber-music voice in the Czech Republic, recording on the old Supraphon label that has so effectively reinvented itself for capitalist times. With this release of two of Schubert's major chamber pieces, it shows why it has ascended to the top of the string quartet heap: the quartet essays daring performances that push things to the edge of both of the musicians' virtuoso abilities and their capacity for interpretive control. The buyer looking for a performance of Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden"), has many choices, but this stirring reading merits the strongest consideration. The one objection that might be raised is that it is truly extreme; it maintains an unbroken series of sharp, almost violent attacks, largely without vibrato, throughout the first movements, giving the music real hair-trigger tension. It is almost too much, but not quite; instead it's a real thrill. The quartet can do more than just kick out the jams; the variations in the second movement, based on the song that gives the piece its nickname, have a beautiful lyrical and somewhat dark tone. The entire quartet is extremely compelling, and if the String Quintet in C major, K. 956 (performed with cellist Danjulo Ishizaka) is slightly less so, it's still miles beyond the common run of performances of the work. The discursive, slightly loose structure of the massive opening movement, rambling in an almost Mahler-esque way through monumental utterances and country dances, fits this very intense ensemble's personality a bit less well than does the "Death and the Maiden" quartet, but there is still impressive playing and an uncanny sense of headlong but controlled forward motion. The obvious next place to go for this group is Beethoven, perhaps specifically the furiously compact utterances of the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, and one awaits further developments with genuine excitement.

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