The Strad Issue: January 2008
Musicians: PavÁo Quartet
Composer: Bax, Elgar

The last couple of decades have witnessed a remarkable general increase in quartet playing standards, yet the downside has been a corresponding tendency towards greater musical objectivism. What a relief, then, to discover an ensemble that hasn’t forgotten how deeply sensual and emotionally liberating playing in a string quartet can be.

The all-female Pavão Quartet could hardly have chosen two more interpretatively challenging works for its classical debut album, yet the players sound as completely at home in early Bax as they do in late Elgar.

Bax’s G major Quartet (dedicated to Elgar), dates from towards the end of the Great War, shortly after the composer had left his wife and children and was in the throes of an affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen. Whatever the emotional upheavals in his personal life, the quartet is one of the most blissfully contented works Bax ever penned. Imagine Dvo?rák’s insatiable bonhomie underpinned by Debussy’s 1890s modal style, inflected by generous washes of Delian chromaticism and you’ll have some idea what to expect. Even bearing in mind fine recordings by the Maggini (Naxos), English (Chandos) and Griller (Dutton) quartets, the Pavão relishes this underrated score with an intoxicating warmth and emotional spontaneity that is irresistible.

The Elgar has enjoyed a distinguished recorded history (the Britten Quartet’s outstanding account is available as a bargain reissue on Regis), yet once again the Pavão Quartet’s affectionate detailing of the work’s expressive undercurrents proves highly persuasive. This luxuriously engineered disc projects the ensemble’s velvet-toned, beguilingly responsive playing to perfection.