Among the many fine string quartets in Prague, the Pavel Haas Quartet has moved to the head of the class. Deemed by no less an authority than the BBC Music Magazine as one of the ten greatest string quartets of all time, the ensemble has supplemented riveting performances with nine recordings that have garnered a long list of accolades, including six Gramophone Awards. Two of those recordings were made with pianist Boris Giltburg, whom the ensemble met by chance at a chamber music festival in 2014. There was an instant chemistry when they played together, which they have done at every opportunity since.

Veronika Jarůšková, Boris Giltburg and Peter Jarůšék
© Petra Hajská

That chemistry was evident in a stripped-down version of their collaboration, with Giltburg joining the quartet’s core members, violinist Veronika Jarůšková and cellist Peter Jarůšek, for an intimate evening of chamber music at the Rudolfinum. The trio sounded as if they had been playing together all their lives, remarkably tight yet speaking with three distinct voices. And the relatively small repertoire for piano trios offered the audience an opportunity to hear pieces not dusted off for performance very often.

The most striking was the most familiar, Schubert’s lengthy Piano Trio no. 1 in B flat major. The trio’s animated treatment captured the vibrancy and lyricism of the music, with deft handling of the rhythms setting an engaging pace. Giltburg provided colorful fills in the first movement and set a jaunty tone with a solo opening in the third, while the second movement was like a showcase for strings – deeply felt expressive melodies from Jarůšek, and virtuoso work creating finely etched lines by Jarůšková. In their interplay, the trio seemed to be not so much in a dialogue as a dance, handing off melodies, trading partners and leads, whirling through pulsing dynamics. It was not quite toe-tapping music, but at times it was close, especially in the finale.

Veronika Jarůšková and Peter Jarůšék
© Petra Hajská

Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque lies at the opposite end of the musical spectrum – short and somber, with a funeral march furnishing a tragic ending. A soft, rippling piano and low murmuring in the strings established a melancholy mood at the outset, which grew in intensity, mostly in a downward spiral. Jarůšek in particular plumbed some serious depths. Gilburg’s natural style is light and bright, which didn’t quite fit this piece, though it kept the music from becoming morose. The funeral march was downplayed, brooding rather than dramatic, setting up an appropriately hushed close.

The technical challenges are considerable in Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, starting with some unusual harmonics in the opening that the trio blended with precision. They established high bars for the changing textures and dizzying rhythms that run throughout the piece, notably with finely drawn impressionistic passages in the first movement and razor-sharp renditions of the overlapping time signatures in the second. Giltburg showed a sensitive touch on the low, dark tones that build a dramatic backdrop in the third movement, then returned to form in the fourth, adding color and contrast to the complex melodies in the strings, which flowed with deceptive ease. A final collision of sounds coalesced into a clear, singing finish.

Boris Giltburg and Peter Jarůšék
© Petra Hajská

Beyond individual passages and pieces, the hallmark of the evening was a freshness in the sound and spontaneity in the playing – not easy to achieve in any circumstances, but particularly impressive in a program of this variety and complexity. That demands a high level of skill, but there’s another dimension when this trio performs, a sense of playing for the sheer enjoyment of playing together. When this kind of alchemy happens onstage, it’s tangible and exhilarating, a reminder that even in small settings, the possibilities in the music are endless.