The Wihan Quartet was formed in 1985 in Czechoslovakia. Since then they have developed an impressive international career, often visiting the UK and being broadcast on its airwaves. Among their achievements is a published recording of Dvořák’s String Quartet no. 11, and it was this recording, not their continued and celebrated presence in the UK, that first brought them to my attention. So when I finally did get to hear them play, at Turner Sims in Southampton on a damp November evening, I was pleased to see that Dvořák’s 11th was billed as the main attraction. Alongside such works as the Ravel quartet and Mozart’s D minor quartet, Dvořák’s little-known 11th would not normally be considered as such, but the Wihan Quartet are self-proclaimed heirs to the Czech musical tradition, and their readings of Czech music are known to be particularly poignant.

Wihan Quartet, © Sussie Ahlburg
Wihan Quartet,
© Sussie Ahlburg

Written in two days and constituting a patchwork of old, discarded ideas, the 11th quartet demonstrates an abandonment of overt “Czechness”, as compared with the 10th. There are too few folksy melodies here for the Wihan Quartet to claim they are operating as national heirs to this particular quartet. Instead, their affinity must be more technical, and borne of familiarity and hard work. Their performance of the slow movement in F major was unsentimental and measured in its exposition of the violin duet. The triplets in the viola part retained a precise symmetry that kept time for the ensemble without restricting the duet’s phrasing, while absolutely every note of the cello part was delivered with strict economy and exact placement.

The infrequency of the 11th’s performance across the world is often attributed to its difficulty. Indeed, the stop-start nature of the Scherzo would be a significant challenge to a less experienced quartet than the Wihan. But short of some minor balance issues, this movement was a great success and appeared playful and lively. This is perhaps because the Wihan Quartet chose not to significantly alter the tempo between sections, giving the movement cohesion and flow in spite of its musical granularity. The trio section played out in much the same fashion, but with the added interest of a complex second violin part accompanying a very simple first violin motif. It’s true that more could have been made of this very Schubertian contrast, but it was still a treat to hear it performed without even a hint of hesitance from either musician. This was apparent in the majority of the Wihans’ rendering of this quartet; put simply, there could have been more dynamic interest. I felt that too much of the music was being played in the “mezzo” dynamic range.

The same cannot be said of how they approached Ravel’s String Quartet in F. Here, the Wihan Quartet appeared to relish the full arpeggiated runs and rich harmonies. Where there were swells to be manufactured, the Wihans duly put the whole of their bows to work. At the other end of the dynamic scale, the first movement broke down into an eerie flautando effect that was most arresting, and must surely have taken a good deal of control, particularly in the higher register. After a recapitulation underpinned by lush harmonic colouring, the Wihan Quartet delivered the famous second movement with aplomb. It’s always amazed me that the combination of pizzicato, syncopation and sustained tremolando in this movement actually works. Good quartets make the constituent parts into a whole body. The Wihan Quartet were totally together throughout, and as one body, giving their best performance of the evening.

The placement of Mozart string quartets at the start of programmes is a most appealing habit. To my mind, it offers a great opportunity for comparison of styles and gives a nod to one of the greatest exponents of the form. The fact that Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor was dedicated to and influenced by Haydn induces an additional nod to another prolific quartet writer. But this performance was about more than deference. The extremely lightweight Minuet attracted the most of the Wihans’ attentions and was much the better for their delicacy. The rest of the quartet was played with the intelligence and sensitivity that Mozart requires.

This concert confirmed a suspicion I’d had for a long time – that I should get out and see more string quartets play live, as opposed to simply digesting their compact discs. What surprised me was that the renowned Czech interpreters’ specialism appeared to be in Parisian early 20th-century suavity.

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