Pavel Haas Quartet at 20: Coming home

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The energetic and eloquent musicians of the Pavel Haas Quartet are celebrating 20 years of music making with a new recording of Brahms quintets joined by some old friends, as they tell Tom Stewart

You get to meet a lot of string quartets in this job, and it goes without saying that each has its own unique dynamic; but generally, they fall into one of two categories: earnest and businesslike or chatty and excitable. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a group more conclusively in the latter camp than the Pavel Haas Quartet. Listening again to the recording of our interview, some words are difficult to make out as the players finish each other’s sentences, interject with new ideas and, sometimes, begin entirely new conversations among themselves. After more than an hour of this, I put it to the group that they are almost startlingly friendly, and with none of the awkwardness that often accompanies this kind of interaction (I’m at home in the UK, they’re backstage in Brussels, all gathered round a single iPad). ‘I think what you’re trying to say is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously,’ replies violist Luosha Fang, who became the group’s newest member when she joined them in April 2021. ‘But we can still be serious, of course,’ counters founding first violinist Veronika Jarůšková. ‘When we’re on stage we would die for our music.’

Strikingly for a group so brimming with energy, this is the Pavel Haas Quartet’s 20th-anniversary year. Perhaps some of their freshness stems from the sense of renewal that accompanies the arrival of a new member – and six line-up changes across two decades should be enough to keep anyone on their toes. Peter Jarůšek (Jarůšková’s husband) replaced the group’s first cellist soon after the quartet started life; Marek Zwiebel became its third second violinist in 2012 and Fang is the third violist to play with the group since its co-founder Pavel Nikl left in 2016. Nikl makes a return, however, on the group’s new recording of Brahms’s op.111 String Quintet – ‘Like a big brother coming home!’ Jarůšková says. For the coupling, the composer’s op.34 Piano Quintet, they’re joined by Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, with whom they first played in 2014 – and who is with them on the call from Brussels. ‘We just clicked,’ he says, grinning. ‘The way they lean into every note is the same approach I take in my solo playing. Very often you just have to find a way into how a quartet works and quickly put something together. With them it’s different; I feel very much part of the group. They’re just such warm and lovely people.’ Giltburg’s effusive praise is met with bashful laughter, but it’s clear from their faces that the quartet players consider him one of their own.

‘When we’re on stage we would die for our music’ – Veronika Jarůšková 

‘It was all very hippy-ish at the beginning,’ Jarůšková says, gazing upwards as if recalling a simpler time. ‘I just wanted to have a band, Beatles-style. Today, sometimes all the organising and logistics can make it feel like a real mission.’ Jarůšek, too, is frank about the challenges of quartet life. ‘For us, feelings are the most important things when it comes to the music, but this life isn’t easy and it isn’t for everyone,’ he explains. ‘Very honestly, sometimes I hate it. There have been many moments when I’ve said to myself, “No – this is over.” Concert and travel schedules mean we have to plan our lives two years ahead, but you don’t know what you’ll want to eat in two years’ time, let alone what music you’ll want to play. That’s just how it is, though – this isn’t a job, it’s a life.’

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