December 3, 2002

Prazek Quartet at Mandel Hall

Prazak Quartet

Dvorak, Bagatelles op. 47

Janacek, String Quartet No. 1

Smetana, String Quartet No. 1

Mandel Hall, November 22

On November 22, as part of The University of Chicago Presents: Chamber Music Series, the world-renowned Prazak String Quartet was invited to perform at Mandel Hall. This engagement marked the Czech ensemble's debut concert in Chicago, and judging from the near-capacity crowd that filled Mandel Hall that evening, its performance had been eagerly anticipated.

The concert featured a selection of works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a sampling of the music spawned during the renaissance in the Czech nationalist tradition. Works from Dvorák, Janácek and Smetana were offered--an unsurprising choice, given their status as leading composers in the Czech tradition. To the Prazak Quartet's credit, however, they did not allow an otherwise conventional selection of composers to hinder their eclectic and impressive presentation of the material. Their nuanced and informed interpretations of the works gave the music a warm and structured tone, yet their playing was also sufficiently distinct to allow the textures and individual lines to be carefully savored.

Opening this evening's program, Dvorák's Bagatelles for Two Violins, Cello and Harmonium, Op. 47 was an excellent if somewhat unconventional choice for a string quartet, due to its conspicuous lack of a viola part. The melody in the Bagatelles was especially sparse, with the twin violins supplying most of the accents and dynamic contrasts. Josef Kluson, the viola player in the quartet, manned the harmonium most capably, sustaining the spare and elegant harmonies so that the strings could demonstrate their full range of expression. What made this work particularly appealing to me was the manner in which the harmonium and the cello were able to interact and play off each other. Although both instruments are constrained in their dynamic and melodic range, their melodies underscore all the significant themes in this work. For example, the thin, reedy sounds produced by the harmonium were instrumental in creating the beautifully haunting motif in the first and third movement (Allegretto scherzando), while the ubiquitous presence of Michel Kanka's nuanced pizzicato in the cello added a finely wrought sense of tension to the work.

In the subsequent piece, Janácek's String Quartet No. 1, after Tolstoy, "the Kreutzer Sonata," the mood shifted quite abruptly from one of mournful seriousness to frenetic energy. There are numerous possible interpretations of "the Kreutzer Sonata," but the one constant feature over the four movements in this work is the con moto tempo characteristic that drives this piece of program music relentlessly forward. The juxtaposition of melodic and rhythmic fragments in each of the movements offers ample opportunity for musicians to demonstrate technical virtuosity and flamboyance, and the Prazak Quartet rose admirably to the occasion. The second movement featured the two violinists playing a tremolo passage sul ponticello, which was contrasted with a separate folk-style theme. Their skillful handling of the contrasting themes was startlingly fluid, effectively conveying the sense of an energetic argument between two opposing sides. As the cascading scales flowed inexorably downwards in the fourth and final movement, one could only marvel at the sheer physical stamina required to maintain such a frantic pace over the length of an entire sonata, even if only in short spurts. One concertgoer in front of me wryly commented that he thought that he needed the intermission more than the Prazak Quartet did. Although this work was difficult listening, and called for intense concentration from the listener, those who made the attempt were well compensated for their efforts.

Fittingly enough, a later work from the leading doyen of Czech music was chosen to draw this evening to a close. Bedrich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, "From My Life" was composed earlier than the other two works performed this evening. "From My Life" is an awesome piece of program music that draws us into the intricate emotions that accompanied Smetana's gradual and heart-rending slide into deafness. While there were positive themes scattered across the work that hinted nostalgically at a happier past, there was no escaping the pensive and dark tremolos that dominated much of the composition. Having acquainted myself with the autobiographical significance of the piece prior to its performance, I was able to greater appreciate the quartet's efforts to weave an emotional subtext into their playing. With unblinking honesty and tremendous sensitivity, they fleshed out Smetana's grief-stricken "soliloquy," and I definitely found this to be my favorite work of the evening. Memorably, the concluding movement in this work features Vlastimil Holek playing the gently receding sound of a single note on the violin, a poignant reminder of Smetana's fading prime.

Perhaps one minor drawback to an otherwise splendid evening was that the Prazak Quartet never developed a warm or spontaneous rapport with the audience. Theirs was a sense of professional detachment and single-minded dedication to the music, and the intimacy of their playing did not seem to travel far beyond the bounds of the quartet itself. This was especially evident at the conclusion of the Haydn encore, a musical choice that left many dissatisfied judging from the lackluster audience response. Ironically, this sense of detachment did not seem to emanate from any lack of enthusiasm on the part of the quartet itself, but was rather an unfortunate effect of the quartet's relentless and at times intimidating drive for technical virtuosity. All in all, however, the Prazak Quartet put up a remarkable performance that deserves praise for the musicians' near flawless execution, and I thank them for an exceptional night of music-making.