Founded back in 2002, the Pavel Haas Quartet has achieved major international prominence since garnering numerous accolades for its recordings for Supraphon, the Czech record label. Nevertheless, my feeling is that the quartet is yet to establish itself as a star attraction in UK concert halls. The word needs to spread about this astonishing young quartet, particularly among Birmingham audiences it would seem, as they have a two further concerts in Town Hall as part of a residency here over the coming months.

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

Although the personnel have changed over the years (two founder members remain), the players have clearly forged an intimate relationship and one which allows them to put themselves completely at the service of the music they are performing. The sweetness of tone characteristic of their performances on disc was very much in evidence and the Town Hall acoustic provided ample space and resonance, which the Pavel Haas players took full advantage of.

The first half of the concert consisted of quartets in C major by Shostakovich and Britten, both giants of 20th-century composition and firm friends in later life. The former composer’s String Quartet no.1 in C major lacks the introspection and sophistication of his later works in this genre, its relative lightness making it an ideal opener for the concert. It is by no means a naïve work – there is a knowing sarcasm lurking beneath the surface of its folk-like, melancholic, melodies. The Pavel Haas players gently underlined these elements rather than overemphasising them. Their nimble playing brought an almost Mendelssohnian character to the perpetual motion scherzo third movement and energetic finale, where they introduced a hint of edginess into their playing for the first time.

Britten’s String Quartet no.2 in C Op.36 was composed in 1945, seven years after Shostokovich’s First. It was composed as part of the composer’s tribute to Purcell in the 250th anniversary of his death. Paul Kildea, Britten's biographer, suggests the work is “infused with the clarity, tenderness and strangeness Britten identified in his great forebear’s melodic lines”. Like a good many of Britten’s works it is no easy listen, yet any first time listeners in the audience would have had little trouble accepting it as a masterpiece from the impassioned and utterly convincing performance given by the Pavel Haas. As throughout the concert, their communication and ensemble was impeccable, four players seemingly moving as one.

That strangeness which Kildea described is evident in the ascending glissando figures passed around the players. These are later recalled in the vast third movement. Though Britten seems to depart from tonality completely at times, there are clear returns to the home key of C major at the conclusions of the first and final movements. In the first, this moment was crowned in fine style with some lovely spread pizzicato chords from cellist, Peter Jarůšek. The players tore into the scherzo second movement, amazing once again with their delicate rhythmic interplay.

The third movement takes the form of a chaconne, a form beloved to Britten, like Purcell before him. As with the Violin Concerto, this movement is the emotional heart of the piece. The quartet played with unflinching intensity, really taking advantage of the spacious acoustic to let declamatory phrases ring out and hit home. Jarůšek once again impressed in the miniature cello cadenza, the first of three that punctuate the movement. The final one of these culminated in defiant double stopped exclamations from leader, Veronika Jarůšková, before C major battled to re-assert itself in the form of lunging chords from the others.  

The quartet was joined in Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet by Matthew Hunt, solo clarinettist with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and a member of Sheffield-based Ensemble 360. Hunt’s position in the centre of the quartet allowed him to interact visibly with the musician or musicians he was particularly engaging with at any given time.

The Pavel Haas players provided a soft cushion of sound on which Hunt could float his melodic lines in Brahms’s glorious late chamber work. They were well-matched, with both Hunt and the quartet having a soft edge to their sounds. Hunt had likewise found the measure of the Town Hall acoustic and had no trouble projecting. The quartet supported him almost reverentially. Occasionally, I wished that Jarůšková, in particular, would project her line more, such was her selflessness throughout this performance. Hunt permitted himself a welcome amount of vibrato in the gypsy central episode in the slow movement. There was also gypsy character in abundance throughout the final theme and variations movement before the pensive return of Brahms’s main theme from the first movement.

This was a remarkable start to the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Town Hall residency. I shan’t want to miss the next two concerts in the coming months, which will feature more Brahms as well as music by their fellow Czech, Dvořák, along with Haydn and Beethoven.