Pavel Haas Quartet

Smetana: String Quartets Nos. 1 "From My Life" & 2

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The performance here of the familiar String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life") of Smetana has everything one could ask for: adept playing and ensemble work, broad expression, sensitivity to the piece's deep autobiographical symbolism. It has everything you'd expect to hear if you went to a concert hall in Prague on a weekend afternoon for one of the city's leading chamber ensembles. It doesn't really break new ground, but that's left to the remainder of the album. The noteworthy entry here is the much-less-often-performed String Quartet No. 2 in D minor, written in 1882 and 1883 as Smetana suffered from deafness and what was probably the syphilis that killed him the following year. The work mystified Smetana's contemporaries, was not published until after his death, and was not properly edited until the middle of the 20th century. (Among its champions was Arnold Schoenberg.) It's concise and rather abrupt: compared with Beethoven's string quartet output, it might be the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, to the String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 ("Harp") of the From My Life quartet. The piece's rather fragmentary nature has been held to be a reflection of the fits and starts in which Smetana, under doctor's orders not to compose, worked on it, but the Pavel Haas Quartet puts it together and makes of it the inward music it ought to be, its flashes of light coming through as bits of hope in a deteriorating life. The quartet is not quite like any other work of the 19th century, and the Pavel Haas Quartet succeeds in taking it on its own terms. Highly recommended.

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