If memory serves, PBS used to run a commercial in which a string quartet rose from the conclusion of a performance to smash its Stradivarii in a Who-like mêlée. “Be more passionate,” the tagline then advised us.
But was the Who ever more passionate than a top-notch string quartet? Somehow I don’t think so (particularly once they'd gone deaf). String quartets are probably the most reliably spirited musicians on the planet – and this proved particularly true of the Prazák String Quartet, which performed with admirable zeal last Saturday night at Jordan Hall.
The program included two staples of the repertoire – the Brahms G-Major String Quintet and the Dvořák “American” Quartet in F Major – as well as the thornier “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet No. 1 by Janáček. I’d never heard the Prazák before, but the power of their muscular playing was obvious immediately in the "Kreutzer," a tone poem of sorts inspired by Tolstoy’s famous novella (which limns the Othello-like torment of a man who murders his wife over an affair he imagines she's had with her accompanist in, yes, Beethoven’s "Kreutzer" Sonata). The composer marked his tortured score with such suggestions as “desperate” and “ferocious,” which the Prazák clearly took to heart – the final movement (led by violinist Vaclav Remes) seemed to reach a nearly screaming intensity before dying away to an exhausted finish.
The segue from this jagged peak to the pastoral transports of the Dvořák was quite a leap, but one the quartet essayed by hanging on to a certain fire in their playing. This concert staple was not, in their hands, a sleepy summer vacation, but rather a spirited holiday - interrupted by one long stretch of lazy song from cellist Michael Kanka in the second movement.
To cover all the bases of the Brahms Quintet, the group welcomed local violist Roger Tapping - whose constant scanning of his cohorts was an unconscious tribute to their confident ensemble. Tapping held his own and then some, although some of the piece's internal intricacies were (perhaps inevitably) lost. Still, much of the music took wing - the opening movement was particularly rhapsodic - and the audience's ovation drew the group back for an encore (the second movement of Mozart's String Quintet in G minor). The Prazák brought the same sensibility to this that they brought to the whole program - a no-nonsense ethos of masculine capability, cut with a passion for lusty attack, that's too rarely heard on local stages.