Hampstead & Highgate Festival 2007: Wihan Quartet

String Quartet No.1 (Kreutzer Sonata)
String Quartet in F, Op.96 (American)
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Wihan Quartet [Leoš Čepicky & Jan Schulmeister (violins), Jiří Zigmund (viola) & Aleš Kaspřík (cello)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 11 May, 2007
Venue: St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

The Wihan Quartet was formed in Prague 22 years ago, in 1985. It is associated with the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust and is Quartet-in-Residence at Trinity College of Music, London. The personnel is unchanged. The musicians experience of playing together over a score of years is both remarkable and discernable. They play as one; they listen as one; they interpret as one.

Immediately on hearing the first bars of the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, the Wihan Quartet’s unanimity was obvious. The house-style is careful and controlled, not without vigour and emotion, but taking few risks. The Wihan produces a soft, ingratiating sound and a lucid interpretation. The players presented each of those jagged broken phrases which are the hallmark of Janáček’s expression carefully and sensitively. The Wihan’s lucidity was quite remarkable – and the care to be lucid. A score would have been superfluous. The Wihan gave the work a grave, slightly suave, beauty and a sheen of freshness. Its passion was house-trained.

The Dvořák was similar – a performance of sustained beauty, gaining considerably from its nimble, supple momentum. The performance was captivating and willowy, full of interest and richness. The Middle European tradition – ever-present, brightly-dressed and vigorous, was enlivened still further whenever the American bounce broke in, gate-crashing. Played listlessly, Dvořák can sound stodgy and garrulous – a minor master only. Here, with the Wihan, we were in the presence of major piece of Czech writing. Every bar was worth listening to attentively.

‘Death and the Maiden’ also evinced the sense of relaxed but attentive unity which only comes from having played together for many years – the liveliness, the clarity, the smooth, silvery textures and the tonal richness. The first movement was quite a lightweight affair. Torment took second place to being articulate – and, indeed, to geniality (Czech, perhaps – not quite Viennese). The ‘Death and the Maiden’ Variations were elegant and limpid – a most civilised entertainment. The scherzo and finale were vigorous, making their point through energy and fleet vitality rather than the terrifying gawkiness that characterised the Brodsky Quartet’s memorable performance at the Wigmore Hall recently.

A movement from Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ Quartet provided an encore – a choice relating perhaps to the Wihan’s recently completed recorded Beethoven cycle. The playing, as before, was a delight to hear. Soberly, the players showed themselves conscious of the music’s beauty, shouldering the responsibility of conveying this to the audience simply and evocatively. I suddenly realised something else: without intending to, the quartet was playing Beethoven’s glorious slow movement in the manner of Dvořák. It was an intriguing experience – a little too settling, though – somewhat reminiscent of cigars and schnapps amid pleasant company after a rich meal.

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