The Wihan String Quartet’s Compelling 30th Anniversary Celebration

06/10/2015

Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven: Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepicky & Jan Schulmeister [violins], Jakub Čepicky [viola], Aleš Kasprík [cello]), King’s Place London, 4.10.2015 (CS)

Mozart: String Quartet in G K.387

Schubert: String Quartet in A minor D.804 (‘Rosamunde’)

Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor Op.132

This year the Wihan Quartet celebrates 30 years of music-making since its formation in 1985.  During this time the Quartet’s performances of the music of the players’ Czech homeland have been especially admired, but their repertoire is diverse and their achievements considerable.  On this occasion at King’s Place the Wihan performed quartets from the Classical and early Romantic eras, demonstrating the remarkable, unassuming empathy which exists between the four players – an empathy which is all the more striking given the current absence of viola player Jiří Žigmund (who is taking a sabbatical), and his replacement by Jakub Čepicky, a fine violinist and viola player who has performed regularly with his father, leader Leoš Čepicky.

We began with Mozart’s Quartet in G K.387, the first of the six quartets which the composer dedicated to Haydn in late 1785.  The opening of the Allegro vivace assai was rich and robust, perhaps surprisingly muscular and rhythmically vigorous, as the voices engaged in a fluid interchange of ideas that seemed to push the music onwards.  This bright and buoyant world was temporarily disturbed by the minor key passages of the development section; here the playing was less exuberant, more insular – pianissimos were hushed and veiled.  But there was a fresh blooming of tone with the return of the main theme and considerable urgency in the drive towards the movement’s conclusion.

The Menuetto is characterised by unusual dynamic markings, with the crotchets of the theme which is introduced by the first violin alternating piano and forte.  The Wihan did not unduly emphasise these contrasts, however, aiming instead for an even, sustained line – anticipating the subsequent chromatic quaver development of this theme; the dynamics were instead marked by more subtle gradations of weight and vibrato.  I felt that cellist Aleš Kasprík played an important role in providing direction in this movement; also noteworthy was the flawless tuning of the unison passages which open the Trio, and the ‘tightness’ of the tense trills.

The Andante cantabile evoked a more expansive, leisurely world, but the Wihan never let the music ‘sit down’, always finding some new idea or nuance to provide impetus, such as the inherent, if gentle, tension between the dotted rhythm in the violins’ lines and the cello’s staccato triplet semiquavers. Leoš Čepicky’s florid E-string elaborations were beautifully sweet and clear.  Jan Schulmeister’s focused second violin semi-quavers initiated an energised contrapuntal dialogue and organic melodic development in the Molto Allegro.  There was a lot of ‘air’ between the incisive staccatos and the mood was bright and full of joy, but quiet recollections of the slithering chromatic motif of the Menuetto imbued some momentary darkness, before the insouciant final cadence banished the shadows.

After such forthright playing in Mozart’s quartet, the restraint and shrouded melancholy of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet came as quite a startling contrast.  The repeated, nudging four-semiquaver motif in the lower two string voices was strikingly ethereal – floating and wraithlike, with only the slightest hint of an accent to give presence – but the first violin’s controlled enrichment of the lyrical melody, above the second violin’s oscillating quavers, gradually injected drama, releasing suppressed angst.  The control exercised by the ensemble during the development section was impressive; the semiquaver motif was kept on a tight rein, tense and quivering, only occasionally allowed to snap with anger.  Interestingly, the recapitulation of the main theme, with its extended transition, was more assertive and flamboyant, paradoxically both troubled and defiant, and the players built towards the conclusion with considerable rhetorical force.

A lovely ease characterised the Andante, as if the clouds had momentarily parted allowing fragile sunlight and warmth to penetrate the mists, as Čepicky glided gracefully to the peak of the violin’s poetic melody.  Passages of doubt and questioning alternated with those which projected clarity and certainty.  The blended sound of the four voices was beguiling as the variations progressed.  The second violin’s running semiquavers trickled like a clear stream, crisply audible but never disturbing the overall texture; and there was tense drama in the following variation, as Schubert’s harmonies darkened and deepened.   But with the quiet close there was peace.

It was a short-lived calm, though, immediately troubled in the Menuetto by the cello’s quiet, murmuring sigh.  Kasprík presented this motif with surprising spaciousness suggesting a weariness which quickly gave way, however, to restless energy when taken up by the violins.  Subtle rubatos of this kind characterised the Wihan Quartet’s approach and the result was a sense of inner turbulence and apprehension.  The same withholding and release was evident at the start of the Trio but here the rising direction of the dotted motif intimated more positive moods and the first violin’s major-key melody, together with the impetus offered by accented third beats, added lightness and life.  The Allegro moderato observed the restraint suggested by Schubert’s tempo instruction, combining folky joy with courtly elegance.  There was a gradual accumulation of intensity as the players pushed the boundaries of the four-square melody, though release came only with the power of the explosive final two chords.

Earlier this year, I reviewed a performance of the ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet by the Takács Quartet, at the Wigmore Hall, and admired the way the Takács emphasised the ‘troughs and peaks of the composer’s emotions and moods’; the Wihan’s restrained melancholy could not have been more different – but the result was equally convincing.  This says much about the way we listen and experience music; our responses to different interpretations – however familiar or little-known the music and however entrenched our expectations – are significantly shaped by the integrity, eloquence and persuasive rhetoric of the performers.  And it also says much about the expressive richness and psychological complexity of Schubert’s quartet – indeed, of all his chamber music.

More ‘psychological’ and musical complexity followed in the final work of the programme, Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor Op.132, though the Wihan’s performance was so assured that the innate logic of this knotty, difficult quartet shone through its tensions and arguments.  The introductory bars were veiled but sustained, creating an uncanny tension which burst forth vigorously in the Allegro.  Rhythms and phrases were flexibly handled and the transitions between fluctuating and contrasting tempi were effected naturally, emphasising the organic development and roving arguments of the music material.  Though I had found Jakub Čepicky’s viola to be a somewhat reticent voice in the two preceding quartets, here it was a strong element, providing stability and focus for the exploratory motifs and changing textures.  The movement drove powerfully to the climactic conclusions: the oscillations in the inner voices and the first violin’s bariolage creating waves of pulsing sound.  The Allegro ma tanto posed its musical debates with boldness, the small motifs generating much energetic discussion between the voices.

In contrast, the extensive, multi-partite Molto adagio evoked distance and stillness in the opening bars, before the slow sotto voce progressions evolved, gaining real gravity.  The unperturbed, controlled manner in which the Wihan traversed the diverse terrains of this immensely challenging movement was remarkable: it was as if all four players were privy to some central consciousness that was formulating the music’s path.  Again I was impressed by the exquisite colour and sheen of Leoš Čepicky’s E-string melodies, but Schulmeister matched his leader for brightness and incisiveness with his dance-like Andante melody.  The Molto Adagio interjections were, by contrast, pensive and intimate, and the tempo was, I think, unusually slow: one could understand why the movement is known as the ‘Heilige Dankgesang’ – ‘prayer of thanks’ – and thought to express Beethoven’s joy and gratitude following his ‘miraculous’ recovery from serious illness.

The Wihan Quartet’s mastery of rhythm and form was displayed once more in the final movements, where the Piu Allegro grew naturally from the preceding Alla marcia and the accelerando to the Allegro appassionato was expertly controlled, with the subtlest touch of restraint just before this ardent last movement.  Here, as throughout the recital, the Wihan’s rich sound, full vibrato and perfectly blended ensemble were compelling.

Claire Seymour

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