It’s one thing to absorb in awe the Pavel Haas Quartet’s award-winning Smetana album on Supraphon but quite another to hear the Czech virtuosi play his Second Quartet live. The opening motif alone had unanimity of attack that’s born of years spent playing this repertoire together (even though violist Jiři Kabát only joined the line-up comparatively recently).

Pavel Haas Quartet © Marco Borggreve
Pavel Haas Quartet
© Marco Borggreve

Smetana’s D minor quartet gets a bad press in some quarters – partially indeed from Nigel Simeone who contributed the programme note for the concert – but a performance such as this shows just how coherent a piece it is. Far from finding a crumbling genius battling against fading resources, the Pavel Haas players projected the work’s forward-looking qualities and the power of its earthy spareness. The first movement’s sentimental coda was unnerving; the becalmed close of the third movement’s con fuoco placid to a fault. Concise yet rich in ideas, Smetana’s autumnal quartet was played as the late masterpiece it is.

The same claim can be applied to Janáček’s late quartet, also his second, even though the latter could hardly be more different from that of his predecessor. While Intimate Letters” dates from 1928, its music has the erotic fervour of a young lover. The opening movement seems to look forward half a century to the textures and mosaic structure of, say, Giya Kancheli, before settling into sinuous counterpoint and the mesmerising femininity of Kát'a Kabanová. The Pavel Haas musicians teased out the fast-shifting colours with aching beauty as the music progressed from a tentative declaration of love to a fervent outpouring of ardent feeling that spilt over into the composer’s heady second movement.

The Quartet’s virtuosity lent a woosh of eroticism to the third movement’s dynamic shifts and its haunting, almost cinematic melody, while the finale was marked by an unmistakable tick-tock from Peter Jarůšek’s cello that seemed to say ‘Yes, I’m an old man, but I love you’. Too fanciful? Perhaps, but the music is so eloquent it seems to invite such speculation.

When Janáček composed his first string quartet some five years earlier he created an original sound world for the four instruments that still startles today, especially when heard, as here, immediately after the formal correctness of Smetana. Inspired by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata (and therefore only tangentially linked to Beethoven’s Op.47 sonata), it asks all four instruments to tell an individual story. The Pavel Haas players succeeded impeccably in this while maintaining the sense of a single body at work, and each movement (all four are marked con moto yet are materially distinct from one another) was crammed with drama. Compelling music, compellingly played.