It was a bittersweet appearance by the Pražák Quartet at Prague Spring this year. The ensemble has announced that this season will be its last, the finale to a storied career that began at Prague Conservatory in the early 1970s and achieved global prominence. Lauded for its virtuosity and versatility, the group brought the influential sound and tradition of Czech string quartets to the world with extensive touring, more than 50 albums/CDs and a wealth of radio recordings.

The Pražák Quartet bows out
© Pražské jaro | Zdeněk Chrapek

The easy way to go out would have been with an all-Czech program. But that hardly reflects the group’s oeuvre, which includes the complete string quartets of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and the most prominent members of the Second Viennese School. Instead, the quartet opted for mature works by two masters of the genre – Haydn and Dvořák – and 20th-century workouts from Czech composer Jindřich Feld and, in a nod to his anniversary year, Stravinsky.

Opening with Feld’s String Quartet no. 4 was a bold stroke. Composed in 1965, the piece is a riot of sharp sonorities and dizzying rhythm and tempo changes, with dynamics that range from barely perceptible scratching to sudden explosions of anxiety. It gave the ensemble an opportunity to showcase two of its strengths – tremendous discipline and superb technical skills. The latter were particularly demanding, with heavy use of techniques like vibrato and spiccato, and entire sections carried by pizzicato. Even more impressive was the players’ ability to maintain four clear, crystalline voices throughout the cacophony.

Haydn would seem to make an unlikely pairing, but his String Quartet no. 67 in F major, Op.77 no.2, offered an ideal contrast, a return to the form’s roots and classic structure. Suddenly the sound was vibrant and colorful, richly expressive though no less meticulous. One of the characteristics of the Pražák Quartet’s style is a slight understatement, evident in this piece in the careful balance of elegance and exuberance. It’s a sophisticated, sometimes cerebral approach that in this case gave the music a regal quality, a performance fit for a king’s court.

The Pražák Quartet
© Pražské jaro | Zdeněk Chrapek

Another bold stroke: opening the second half of the concert with a miniature, Stravinsky’s Double Canon (“Raoul Dufy in Memoriam”). At 1'45” it’s more like a fragment, especially with such threadbare, mournful lines. The ensemble did fine work giving it body and heft, despite the agonizingly slow tempo. Some moments actually bordered on tender – not a word normally used to describe Stravinsky.

Dvořák’s String Quartet no. 14 in A flat major offered an emotional close, which the ensemble tempered with restraint. The sound was distinctly native: deeply felt, warmly lyrical with a romantic luster. Yet the emotion remained an undercurrent, topped by playing so finely calibrated that the music seemed to float at times. It was a refined treatment, a bit dry, yet so engaging that even watching it online, I found myself breathing along with the performers. If it’s possible to reach into the soul of the music – and the composer – this was a vivid realization of that dream.

By the time the dance rhythms of the final movement had drawn to an exhilarating close, this did not feel like a farewell performance. It was smart and fresh and remarkable, considering that second violinist Vlastimil Holek and violist Josef Klusoň have been with the group since its inception. Cellist Michal Kaňka joined in 1986, and first violinist Jana Vonášková came on in 2015, adding some youthful energy to the ensemble. They will be missed, by audiences both at home and worldwide. But there’s something to be said for going out on top.

This performance was reviewed from the Prague Spring live video stream