Young Czech string quartet storming back into city

Courtesy PhotoMasterful musicians The Pavel Haas Quartet — from left

An ensemble of young, acclaimed Czech musicians returns to the Herbst Theatre tonight with the intent to keep conquering San Francisco Performances audiences.

Prague’s Pavel Haas String Quartet — featuring violist Pavel Nikl, violinist Veronika Jarušková, cellist Peter Jarušek and violinist Marek Zwiebel — made a big splash here last year at its local debut.

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With a commanding tone, vibrant energy and palpable passion, the quartet presented a memorable calling card. Recent appearances in Scotland, Germany and Canada also have received enthusiastic reviews.

Formed only 10 years ago, the quartet was named in honor of a Czech Jewish composer who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp, leaving behind important compositions, including three pieces for string quartet.

The ensemble began winning awards and international competitions almost immediately, and it has toured extensively on three continents.

In an exclusive contract with Supraphon, it has issued acclaimed CDs of works by Janácek and Prokofiev. Last year, its recording of Dvorak’s String Quartets in G Major, Op. 106 and in F Major (“American”) won a Gramophone Award for recording of the year.

Describing the group’s interpretation of the G major work on that CD, Michelle Dulak Thomson wrote in San Francisco Classical Voice: “You’d have to hear other performances to know how good this one is. There is, for example, a strange interlocking ostinato between the viola and cello early in the scherzo. It always sounds like two dogs fighting over a bone — except here, where for once you can hear it as a substratum and pay attention to the violins dueling over it.”

The group’s San Francisco concert features Janácek’s 1923 Quartet No. 1, a masterpiece of Czech chamber music. Named the “Kreutzer Sonata,” the title refers to Tolstoy’s novella of the same name, which was inspired by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, also known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.”

The composition reflects Janácek’s yearning for a young woman, Kamila Stösslová, though both were married to others at the time. (Janácek Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” is the musical depiction of the love letters he wrote to Stösslová.)

The program opens with Brahms’ 1873 Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2, a lyrical, amiable work boasting a tempestuous dance finale.

Beethoven’s mighty 1826 Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 and 133, rounds out the program. At  about 50 minutes — twice the length of some works in the genre — it consists of five movements and the concluding “Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue),” a unique, complex work.

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