Czech music by Czech musicians made for an irresistible combination Tuesday night, during the penultimate event of the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City's 2011-12 season.
The concert, at the University of Utah's Libby Gardner Hall, featured the Pavel Haas Quartet performing Bedrich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1, "From My Life," and a memorable performance of Franz Schubert's tour de force Quartet No. 14 in D minor, "Death and the Maiden."
During the ensemble's relatively brief, 10-year existence, violinists Veronika Jaruskova (founder) and Eva Karova, violist Pavel Nikl and cellist Peter Jarusek (Veronika's husband) have racked up a surprising number of prizes, including Gramophone's 2011 "Record of the Year" award for a couple of Dvorak quartets. The group is now preparing to record Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," and judging by the quality of this performance, they are about ready for the recording studio.
A theme of struggle and tragedy connected the evening's two works, musically expressing both composers' reflections on life, art and their unexpected trials Smetana's deafness and Schubert's impending death.
The ensemble captured the Schubert work's dark tonal palette and heightened tension with their ability to turn on a dime with the music as it see-sawed between lyrical passages and moments of pathos. The youthful musicians' interpretative vision throughout the work was marked by an economy and leanness that was ultimately irresistible.
The galloping passages of the fourth movement (reminiscent of his Lied "Der ErlkÃ¶nig") pressed on inexorably to the furious gasp of its final racing notes.
The Smetana work opened with a thunderous E minor chord the quartet's four movements, playing out in a sonic, somewhat autobiographical story that revealed the composer's zest for life, nature and art. Jaruskova's shrill high E harmonic on the violin at the end of the work signified the ringing in Smetana's ears.
Jarusek rocked with his cello, punctuating emotionally resonant moments with a stomp on the stage floor with his heel.
The Haas members' vitality and passion, seasoned with interpretative wisdom beyond their years, was astonishing. Entrances, whether imperceptible or earth-shaking, were marked by impeccable precision. These folks elevated the music's drama quotient without pandering to sentimentality.
The audience was treated to a sublime encore of the second movement from the Dvorak Quartet No. 12 "The American Quartet," one of the works on their award-winning album.