Recording of the Week,
Dvořák Quintets from the Pavel Haas Quartet, with Boris Giltburg and Pavel Nikl
It’s been quite some time since the Pavel Haas Quartet’s previous recording (a disc of string quartets by Bedřich Smetana which I reviewed very enthusiastically way back in April 2015), and now finally the wait is over with their new release of two quintets by Dvořák: the Piano Quintet in A major op. 81, and the String Quintet in E flat major op. 97 (which, like the String Quartet op. 96 written immediately before it, is often nicknamed the ‘American’).
Something that always takes my breath away with this quartet is the range and breadth of dynamics and tone colours that they produce, as well as the perfect blend of sound that they make whilst still allowing individual members’ contributions to come to the fore when required. The very opening of the piano quintet is a case in point: with its gentle cello melody supported solely by a rocking piano accompaniment it makes for a beautifully hushed opening, and as played here by cellist Peter Jarůšek it is simply sublime. Take also the first movement of the string quintet, where the players move from digging in with such force that it sounds like their strings are about to snap, to the most delicately tender chords.
Assisting them for the piano quintet is Russian pianist Boris Giltburg; he impressed us all in the Presto office with his recent disc of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto on Naxos, and here he proves himself to be an equally formidable chamber music partner, slotting in seamlessly with the quartet. The balance between him and the quartet is spot on at all times; he genuinely feels like an organic part of the group, never dominating unnecessarily, and yet coming to the fore when appropriate (not least his fleet of foot contributions to the third movement). His playing is full of great grace and delicacy, especially his mournful refrain at the beginning of the second movement, and his refinement is matched every step of the way by the strings, whose husky, chilling tone at the very end of that same movement is spellbinding.
When it comes to the string quintet, it is entirely fitting that for the role of second viola they are joined by the quartet's former violist (and one of their founder members), Pavel Nikl. It's often hard to believe there are actually only five of them; many times I was convinced I must be listening to an entire string orchestra, such is the sheer volume of sound they create!
The way the cellist digs into his open fifths with great gusto is a joy to hear, and the shaping of the end of the first movement could hardly be bettered, with the players feeling free to take their time over the corners and evoke a magical atmosphere. There's swagger aplenty in the second movement, which gives way to some extraordinary viola playing: the long, searching, high-lying melody is faultless in Radim Sedmidubský's hands.
When it comes to the third movement, a set of variations, I'm afraid I find myself running out both of superlatives and also of synonyms for the word "excellent". Again, the range of tone and attack on offer is a marvel, and the shaping of every phrase, with all five players breathing and thinking as one, has to be heard to be believed. For me it is definitely the highlight of this performance. So, as I mentioned at the start, it’s been quite a wait, but undoubtedly worth it: another stunning disc from the Pavel Haas Quartet and friends.