PAVEL HAAS – From Monkey Mountains – SQ No. 2

Czech composer Pavel Haas [1899-1944] wrote three string quartets. Haas was one of the musicians ostracized by Hitler’s Nazi movement, as a purported proponent of Entartete (degenerate) music. He was killed in the Holocaust. Influenced by Janacek, under whom he studied, this work, From Monkey Mountains, has many moods ranging from agitation to wonderful brooding soundscapes. It is in four named movements.

Landscape – this first movement of String Quartet No. 2 is one of my favourites in the genre. It opens with a strikingly soulful, lamenting, repeated motif. I wouldn’t call it an ostinato, as the tempo is so slow, but it does have impetus. A solo violin floats over this motif, which changes chords occasionally, leading to melodic development in the violin, even to the extent of sounding modal or ethnic. The motif gradually becomes louder, and the violin is ever so sparse now. A pause leads to a new harmonic background, which surges into a tempo. It’s all background for a time. The violin reappears, this time over another motif. I feel that the motif is the music, even though we have violins drifting across the surface. Now the motif becomes ever so slow and a wonderful harmonic change brings with it a new feeling. The cello steps out to the forefront and it negotiates the previously mentioned change in harmony. The first violin returns to lament over a sombre background, interrupted by a flashy, descending phrase, which occurs a number of time in this passage. Now both violins are ascendant, one being busy in the high register and the second, playing quiet, long, low tones, almost as part of the ensemble. The intensity eventually rises, and the opening motif reappears. The end is a long chord.

I feel as if I haven’t done justice to the magnificence of this movement, but it would probably take several A4 pages to do so. I believe the background could stand on its own. It’s a marvellous piece of writing.

Coach, Coachman and Horse – a relatively short movement, this opens with low string sound effects, and many glissandos. A phrase from the first movement is hinted at, before the music is whipped into a frenzy. There is a very persistent pulse, which gradually dissolves back into the opening mood. That first movement quote returns; the composer is playing with us here. More quotes follow, then it absolutely races to the end.

The Moon and I – returns to the longing nature of the first movement. A lamenting violin melody is supported with a sombre accompaniment. There is no tempo here, it is pure stasis. The second violin rises to the surface and the duet effect is wonderful. This is a very personal statement from the composer. It’s like the first movement without the accompaniment. Now the cello comes into play and converses with the violins; a tempo is forming. This mysterious, but lovely passage persists for some time. It peaks, then dissolves back into stasis. That wonderful harmonic change from the first movement is repeated, but under different rhythmic circumstances. A violin slowly emerges out of the space and makes a moving statement. Further harmonies from the first movement are repeated. You could reach out and touch this music, it is just so precious. It goes out with a whisper.

Wild Night – the final movement begins with a stilted violin played over a background of violin trills. Then a strong tempo is enforced, you can almost hear the jackboots. A pizzicato motif of a few bars leads into a slightly frenzied passage where a violin soars over powerful interjections. This is degenerate music. The hostile feeling gives way to a racing violin passage. The next section is almost burlesque in nature; it is so out of context, it mocks itself. Now the aggression returns, but only briefly and we are then back into a most longing, peaceful atmosphere. The two violins lead the music, which is almost pathos. There are again distant references to the first movement. This is music of hope. A solo violin reaches skyward before the jackboots return to bring about a severe ending.

This is a very interesting work, with much beauty and not a little anger, at times.

My review copy, titled Haas-Krasa-String Quartets performed by the Hawthorne String Quartet, is in the Decca Entartete Musik series. The problem with finding this composer’s works is that there exists a Pavel Haas Quartet, who always come up in the searches. They have actually recorded No. 2, paired with Janacek’s Intimate Letters. Sounds like a good coupling, with plenty of passion. This disc is on Spotify and the work is also on YouTube.

Listenability: Early Modern – slightly abstract – ultimately brilliant.

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