Picture this: one of the Peak District’s most beautiful valleys; a perfect, pale-blue evening in mid-summer; an ancient churchyard thronged with a relaxed crowd admiring the view, or wending their way slowly to and from the convenient hostelry. Add in that they’ve just listened to some of the most beautiful music in the world played by some of its most skilful interpreters, and you have the perfect way to spend an evening. From Glastonbury to Sheffield’s Tramlines, festivals seem to be rekindling the public’s love of live music, and perhaps weaning them off streaming and downloads. Yorkshire has its share of these gatherings, and if the packed church is anything to go by the Bradfield Festival is doing its bit.

© Wihan Quartet
© Wihan Quartet

There were, and still are, many things for which to thank The Lindsay String Quartet. From 2000 until their retirement in 2005, they took part in the Bradfield Festival, and their participation attracted musicians from all over the world. For the last eight years, this has included the Wihan Quartet from Prague. The Wihan have attracted many rave reviews, particularly for their recordings of Dvořak and Janáček, but here they began with Mozart – his “Dissonance” Quartet. From the stark, un-Mozartian harmonies of the Adagio opening to the rapid semiquavers of the Allegro, the first movement was gripping in its intensity, but then speed was replaced with sweetness – the second movement’s Andante cantabile conversations between the first violin (Leoš Čepicky) and cello (Michal Kanka) were winningly beautiful. The Minuet danced and the final Presto sped along with a youthful energy.

It is possible for string quartets in their mature years to lose some of this energy, but the Wihan are fortunate in two respects – Kanka replaced Ales Kasprik on cello when he retired and Jakub Čepicky, son of Leoš, similarly replaced Jirí Zigmund on viola. These two players have obviously slotted in without affecting the equilibrium of the group. But a quartet needs a leader, and Leoš Čepicky has lost none of the dynamism and physicality needed for this role.

Smetana’s Second String Quartet definitely needs these attributes as the four movements are emotionally tiring in their unrelaxed drama – there is no slow movement – but there seemed to be no exhaustion in the audience who sauntered out happily into the sunshine at the interval.

They returned to a more considered music – Josef Suk’s Meditation on an old Czech Hymn, “St Wenceslas”. It is thoughtful music, and its contrapuntal nature brought the pure tones of Jakub Čepicky on viola and Jan Schulmeister on second violin more into the picture. Suk was Dvořák’s son-in-law and began his composing career by imitating his style, but this changed after the death of his father-in-law, closely followed by the death of his wife. He became one of the founders of Czech modernism and his music looks forward with its more folk influenced harmony.

Dvořák himself perhaps felt freer to use folk influenced material in his quartets than his symphonies, but this is more in the area of melody than harmony. His String Quartet no. 10 in E flat major is a good example of this – the tunes, folk-style or not, just keep coming, and the Wihan’s reputation as the premium interpreters of Dvořák’s music was borne out. The variety of sound in the work’s second movement, a Dumka, was most engaging – the cello turns into a guitar and the violin occasionally takes off into gypsy dancing – while in the Romanza, the whole quartet devoted themselves to a polished sweetness of sound. The finale then demonstrated the completeness of the Wihan’s technical mastery – the accuracy of their ensemble; the synchronised spiccatos; the sudden joint crescendos and diminuendos, and the togetherness of the speed changes.

The church rang with applause and the quartet responded, not with any old encore, but a whole movement – the finale of Dvořák’s “American” Quartet.

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