Review: Pražák Quartet delivers sincere, dignified, sedate performance

Tuesday’s mainstage Chamberfest program at Dominion-Chalmers was all about the grand Eastern European quartet tradition, with the Pražák Quartet performing works by Dvorak, Smetana and Zemlinsky.

The audience got what they were expecting, more or less, from one of the Czech Republic’s most pedigreed chamber ensembles playing music written by their country’s greatest composers. Everything was sincere, lovely, dignified and perfectly correct, haloed in that typical warm, dense, slightly fuzzy Czech string sound.

What the performance wasn’t was exciting or surprising in any way. This was textbook, unruffled playing to the point of sedation — only cellist Michal Kanka showed any level of energy or boldness in his lines.

At the same time, you could never accuse the quartet of merely calling it in; the quality was much too high for that. Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 10 had abundant impulsion and jolly folkloric flavour. The ‘Dumka’ second movement was full-throated and gently nostalgic.  

Poor Alexander von Zemlinsky is perhaps as famous today for being the man Alma Schindler jilted for Gustav Mahler as he is for his music. The Austrian composer’s connection to the program theme was his stint as conductor at the Deutsches Landestheater in Prague. His first quartet shows the influence of his mentor Brahms, but with a charm, confidence and with all Zemlinsky’s own. I felt Pražák could have given the piece a more youthful, vigorous cast, particularly in the coy second movement. But the pavane-like third movement was beautifully stated, anchored by Kanka’s ardent cello line.

Smetana’s autobiographical String Quartet No. 1 closed the program. There were beautiful solos from founding violist Josef Kluson, but overall the quartet’s interpretation could have benefited from an injection of passion and attack. The coda felt more deflated than hushed; the ensemble was not able to maintain the intensity through Smetana’s dramatically quiet ending.

As an encore, the Prazak performed a transcription for string quartet of the D-flat major waltz from Dvorak’s Op. 54 Waltzes for piano.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.