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A Midspring Night's Dream

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
05/12/2001 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet Op. 76, # 1
Franz Schubert: Quartet D. 804
Bedrich Smetana: Quartet # 1

Panocha String Quartet
Jiri Panocha and Pavel Zejfart (violins)
Miroslav Sehnoutka (viola)
Jaroslav Kulhan (cello)

I have been listening to music for a really long time now and hear all varieties of performance in the course of my year. Thinking about the evening to come as I journeyed to the 92nd Street Y, I looked forward to an interesting program of Haydn, Schubert and Smetana which I assumed would be played by a particularly competent quartet, categorizing them a little in advance as exemplars of the fine series of Czech ensembles which has graced the Tisch Center stage this entire season. Although I was disappointed with the paucity of patrons, I settled in and applauded a foursome of middle-aged European gentlemen in formal wear who took their places confidently and raised their bows to begin. I have been in this expectant position hundreds of times and so felt very, very comfortable. Imagine my surprise when, from the initial chord, I was overcome with a totally new sound, unlike any that I have experienced from a chamber group before.

This is a kinder, gentler string quartet, capable of a delicacy that caused my jaw to drop immediately. The aggregate sonority is soft, not just in volume but in timbre as well, as if sent through some filter made of feather pillows. The individual notes are clean and crisp, but the acoustical experience is one of almost surreal comfort, an enveloping lightness of being. The Panocha must have spent years developing this uniquely pleasurable effect (they have been together since the ‘60’s), but what seems even more incredible is the amount of hard work it must take to maintain it for the long haul. The Haydn, with its opening so reminiscent of the Beethoven 12, was sumptuously played, the tensions and emotional peaks and valleys sprinkled with pastoral fairy dust.

Even more satisfying for its soothing timbral properties was the ”Rosamunde”. The famous melodies of Schubert were written to be played this way, I just never realized this until last evening. As movement after movement unfolded, I could hardly wait for the next spun-glass treatment; it was as if I were hearing these gorgeous tunes for the first time. None of the drama is taken away under these necromancies; the ultimate effect is perhaps even more striking, like a clearly remembered dream.

This has been a magnificent spring of Czech music in New York, but last night’s performance of the more famous ”From My Life” was actually the only piece of the season performed by Czechs. The opening fermata was presented in a more conventional manner, an experience by this time in our musical conditioning which again made me sit up and take notice. The highly dramatic viola statement was filled with angst and fire and we were off on a wild journey of reminiscence. It is judicious of this ensemble to be able to employ their special sound only as needed; they are in no danger of being “type cast”. This was full-blooded narrative to be sure, but also related with that certain light touch which distinguishes authentic performances of Bohemian music. I noticed several listeners air-conducting the spirited polka. This was a great performance of a piece which can otherwise be infused with a tad too much Sturm und Drang. Beethoven, of course, comes to mind when listening to the mature works of the deaf Smetana, but in addition to the rage against Nature there is also the quiet reflection in tranquility that only those rare few of us who truly live in our own little world can muster. I would hope that when the composer listened to this wonderful composition in his own mind, he heard a sound akin to that of the Panocha Quartet.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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