Thursday, March 19, 2009

Music review: Prazak Quartet masterful in Duncan closer

The Prazak Quartet, from left: Michal Kanka, Vlastimil Holek,
Vaclav Remes and Josef Kluson.

By Greg Stepanich

LAKE WORTH -- In all the classical music world's excitement over the anniversaries of Haydn and Mozart this year, we have apparently forgotten to take the tricentenary measure of Franz Xaver Richter.

But a performance Wednesday afternoon by a quartet of musicians from Richter's homeland of what is now the Czech Republic showed that when it comes to the quartet format, Richter (1709-1789) spoke with a fresh and invigorating voice that should be heard more often.

The string quartet in question was the much-celebrated Prazak Quartet, a first-rate ensemble from Prague whose appearance closed a fine chamber music season at Palm Beach Community College's Duncan Theatre in Lake Worth. The Prazak offered an all-Czech program of Richter, Janacek and Dvorak, and provided ample evidence, from individual distinction to ensemble cohesiveness, of the reasons it is held in high regard.

The Richter Divertimento (in C, Op. 5, No. 1), from a set of six published in 1768, is a delightful three-movement work that is unusual for the independence with which each voice in the quartet is treated, and for the sheer charm and vivacity of its melodic content. The Prazak -- Vaclav Remes, first violin, Vlastimil Holek, second violin, Josef Kluson, viola, and Michal Kanka, cello -- played it with gusto, solo and together, such as in Kanka's rapid-but-centered arpeggios in the first movement.

The second movement featured much more delicacy until the foursome built the music slowly and steadily to a chord that resolved back into the tonic, while the contrapuntal finale was distinguished by a catchy, Haydnesque tune that was played with crispness, liveliness, and high spirits. Neglect of fine pieces like this, especially when presented by an ensemble such as the Prazak, is hard to fathom.

The Richter, which opened the concert, was followed by the first of Leos Janacek's two quartets, the one subtitled Kreutzer Sonata after the Tolstoy domestic-drama short story in which the titular Beethoven work plays an important part. The opening six-note yearning theme that returns in the finale received the proper sort of hothouse color that makes this music effective, and again the Prazak chose a big approach for its overall reading.

While that made the little chattering motif in the first movement stand out as each player handled it, a slightly more mysterious, subtler attack at times might have made it even better.

This is often music of seeming fits and starts, and it takes a good group of musicians who know how to maintain the same intensity through the whole work despite its division into movements. In this work the motif at the opening generates the rest of the material, which helps to unify it, but the Prazak also made it work by bringing so much color and emotion to each small moment, lighting the piece with a moving inner fire.

The concert closed with the final string quartet (No. 14 in A-flat, Op. 105) of Antonin Dvorak, one of the last instrumental works he completed before turning to operatic composition in the last years of his life. The Prazak gave this lovely piece a beautiful reading, in particular by keeping its textures so clear.

The performance had an attractive springy quality to it in the three fast movements, and in the slow movement, there was full-throated warmth, with Holek and Kanka contributing some particularly nice passages.

This was a masterful interpretation in every respect, in which the Prazak demonstrated that rare attribute of only the finest quartets: Each player had a distinct sonic character that was not lost even in the tightest ensemble passages. It was prime Dvorak, and a nourishing, fulfilling way to end the Duncan season.

(Here is a performance from YouTube of the Prazak Quartet on Czech television playing the second movement of the Dvorak:)

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