Corp’s Third String Quartet is “the Ideal Aperitif”

Corp, Dvořák, Beethoven: Wihan String Quartet – Leoš Čepický, Jan Schulmeister (violins), Jiří Žigmund (viola) & Aleš Kaspřík (cello),Plymouth University Sherwell Centre, UK, 17.11.2012 (PRB)

Corp: String Quartet No 3
Dvořák: String Quartet in C, Op 61
Beethoven: String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op 131

Ronald Corp (credit John Reddihough)


It’s always a gamble, when planning any concert, to get it just right. Sometimes a programme made up entirely of popular works will draw in the crowds, while conversely having something decidedly different on the menu can achieve the same result. Equally what goes down well at one venue may not at another, though often it’s as much about marketing and disseminating information, as it is about programme content as such.

Ronald Corp is perhaps best known as Founder and Artistic Director of the New London Orchestra and New London Children’s Choir, and Musical Director of the London Chorus and Highgate Choral Society; he was also ordained into the Anglican Church. But he is also a prolific composer, and his String Quartet No 3 was actually premiered by the Wihan Quartet at the capital’s Proms at St Jude’s Midsummer Music and Culture Festival in 2011.

As teachers, we are often made aware of the principle ‘From the Known to the Unknown’, so at first sight it seemed somewhat odd that the Wihan Quartet, making its second visit to Plymouth, should opt to start with a modern work which, while the composer described it as ‘not so long’, still takes up fifteen or so minutes’ playing-time.

However, musically-speaking their opening gambit certainly paid off, and Corp’s quartet provided an ideal aperitif for what was to follow. While the outer movements seem, on first hearing, somewhat less engaging, the slow movement (Cantilena) was a pure gem, which the quartet despatched with profound emotion, and clearly reflecting the work’s dedication in loving memory of a former nurse, who had succumbed to cancer.

Wihan Qt  (credit Sussie Ahlberg)

The Wihans were formed back in 1985, and have gained an enviable reputation, among other things, for their acclaimed interpretation of music from their Czech homeland. With this in mind, their particular choice of a subsequent work might equally have proved less wise, given that Dvořák’s String Quartet in C, Op 61, is one which does not rely heavily on folklore or nationalist elements, is more cosmopolitan in outlook and, as such, is less frequently heard. But such was the strength of their interpretation that each movement, to a greater or lesser degree, was still clearly imbued with the composer’s unique fingerprint, from the dance-like finale to the melodic simplicity of the slow movement, given against some quite rhythmically-bizarre cello pizzicati.

Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet is as much a monumental seven-movement musical work as almost an all-embracing spiritual, even religious experience. Once more the Wihans didn’t disappoint, with a performance of the utmost insight and emotion, which so flawlessly conveyed the composer’s complex intentions.

According to second-violinist, Jan Schulmeister, performing this particular quartet feels quite unlike playing virtually any other piece in the repertoire, hence the sensible decision to conclude the programme with it.

Even after a long and taxing recital, though, audiences always want more, even if any encore here would have to be chosen with a special consideration for what has gone before.

In the event, however, it seemed wonderfully apt that the Wihans should finish with the slow movement from Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet. Feeling that his health was deteriorating, Schubert knowingly asked that he be played Beethoven’s quartet – in November 1828, just a few days before he passed away.

Philip R Buttall