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Pražák Magnificence: Janáček, Haydn, and Brahms at the Corcoran Gallery

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Leoš Janáček, String Quartets,
Pražák Quartet

Nothing screams "Irish" more than seeing the Pražák Quartet playing Haydn, Janáček, and Brahms, so I followed those Irish roots of mine dutifully to the Corcoran on March 17. Somehow this has only been my second time in the Francis and Armand Hammer Auditorium (the last time there, I saw the Quartet of Quartets, the Takács—read Ionarts review here), but there can't be any doubt that this is the best small venue to see and hear chamber music in D.C.

The Pražák Quartet, almost unchanged in its formation since their establishment at the Prague Conservatory in 1974, consists of Vaclav Remes (1st violin), Vlastimil Holek (2nd violin), Josef Klusoň (viola), and Michal Kaňka (cello). Piatigorsky-student Kaňka replaced Josef Pražák in 1986. Mr. Kaňka's Giovanni Grancino cello (c. 1710) has a wonderfully supple tone, just as the modern viola (1985, Tomás Pilar) of Mr. Klusoň convinces through sheer sound alone. Then of course it matters that the intimacy of the Corcoran's auditorium makes for a sound that is very present, "in your face (ears)" in the best imaginable way. Attending a concert there comes very close to the spirit of chamber music.

Alas, it matters who is behind the wheel, and that's where the well-honed Pražáks come in. The richness of their sound was part their doing, enhanced by the venue. The perfect intonation went entirely to their credit. Almost flawlessly executed, the Haydn Quartet in G (op. 74, no. 3, "The Rider") had verve, thickness of tone, and yet lightness of touch: near ideal for a "modern practices" quartet. The opening Allegro and the Finale: Allegro con brio, which refers back to the opening, were full of zest and energy; the Largo assai painfully beautiful and lyrical. Little wonder that the press (especially in France, like Le Monde de la Musique and Repertoire) consistently award their recordings the highest honors.

Next on the program was the first of Janáček's two excellent quartets. Entitled "The Kreutzer Sonata," it is Janáček's (protofeminist) response to Tolstoy's short story (that is, in turn, centered around Beethoven's sonata), where marital infidelity leads to the murder of the heroine. Where Tolstoy seems to imply that it is understandable and, due to all the emotions running high, somehow "OK" to kill your unfaithful wife, Janáček seems to interject and say, "No, that is not 'OK'." It is a ravishing work, hardly less so than the more often performed second quartet, "Intimate Letters." The link to the preceding Haydn is the reoccurrence of the "driving agitato passages" from op. 74, no. 3's last movement. Admittedly, it was easier for me to tell from the accompanying notes than from the quartet itself. After the quartet ended, there was a half-minute pause of awe (not ignorance) that I had never experienced in a chamber concert.

Brahms, Mozart, and Schumann all are prime examples of how difficult it is to write really well for the string quartet. All three manage to write moments of enormous beauty, passion, energy, and lyricism into their œuvre, but they could not do so at a level as consistently high as their other chamber works, making the achievements of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók, Shostakovich, and Villa-Lobos only all the more impressive. Mozart had always been very well served on record, even before the Quatuor Mosaïques set the new standard in the last ten quartets. Brahms, however, needed the Alban Berg Quartet to show a wider audience what can be done with what is considered Brahms's least strong chamber output. (The first EMI recording is the most successful.) Schumann had to wait for the Zehetmair Quartet's ECM recording to redeem his quartets in the eyes of many critics. (Immediately thereafter, the Talich—as if inspired—followed with an excellent complete set.)

Hearing a quartet live and played as well as the Pražák did helps immensely. Brahms's serene and gorgeous moments get a presence that carries one over the slightly more awkward or less interesting passages so that the third quartet in B-flat major, op. 67, was still a very lovely experience. Long and heartfelt applause elicited a final movement from Dvořák's American Quartet (even less "American" than his 9th symphony, but if the misnomer is necessary to make this sublime work more popular, so be it). The Pražák was every bit as good in it as might be expected. It was a fitting end to a stupendous concert.

The last three concerts of this season of the Musical Evening Series at the Corcoran will feature the Peabody Trio in Beethoven Piano Trios on April 15th, April 29th, and May 13th.

More ionarts reviews from the Corcoran

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L. van Beethoven, String Quartets, op. 18, no. 1-3, Pražák Quartet
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L. van Beethoven, String Quartets, op. 59, no. 1-3, Pražák Quartet
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A. Borodin, String Quartet No. 2, Piano Quintet, Pražák Quartet
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A. Dvořák, String Quartets No. 10 and 13, Pražák Quartet

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