A Delightful Evening with the Wihan Quartet and Sofya Gulyak

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Dvořák, Schumann: Sofya Gulyak (piano), Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepický & Jan Schulmeister [violins], Jakub Čepický [viola], Aleš Kaspřík [cello]), Kings Place, London, 6.11.2016. (CS)

Janáček – String Quartet No.1 (‘Kreutzer Sonata’)
Dvořák – String Quartet No.13 in G Op.106
Schumann – Piano Quintet in Eb Op.44

The emotional unrest of Leoš Janáček’s First String Quartet can draw full-blooded, even abrasive, playing from string quartets as the players strive to convey the fervid quality of the music’s Tolstoy-derived narrative.

While offering a reading that was no less urgent or heartfelt than the fiercest, most rhythmically driven performances, at the start of this London Chamber Music Society concert at Kings Place the Wihan Quartet brought to this emotively powerful work a gentler inflection and sensitive nuance.  In the opening bars of the Adagio con moto, they chose not to emphasise the astringent attack of the sforzando which is the destination of the fourth-based arc motif that unites the work, but rather established a sense of emotional distance.  Subsequently – through the tense interplay of ostinato-mosaic motifs and scurrying arcing triplets in the Vivo passages – they tightened the screw, growing in weight and intensity.  The contrast between the cello’s and first violin’s lightly articulated folk-derived theme at the start and the more incisive restatement of this theme by the middle voices later was thus dramatic and propelling.

The Con Moto conjured a macabre world of jabbing accents, feverish flutterings, edgy trills and whistling sul ponticello and glass tremolo; the skittish high violin over low sustained cello notes was unnerving.  But the elongation of the motto fourth motif into a nostalgic song of reminiscence brought relaxation.  The handling of the changes of tempo, and the accelerandi and ritardandi, between sections was superb, and the overall control of rhythmic utterly convincing.  The full-toned crotchets of the concluding statements of the theme, by first violin and cello, were assertive and brought a momentary sense of resolution and rightness.

The third movement theme was elegant and had a vocal quality.  This was brusquely brushed aside, though, by the urgent sul ponticello buzzing and the momentum carried into the Vivo, further enlivened by vibrant pizzicato playing.  A warmed-toned second violin solo from Jan Schulmeister eased in a melodic expansion and relaxation, as the first violin climbed high, surely and sweetly.  The reprise of the opening movement material at the start of the final Con Moto was rich and reassuring but Leoš Čepicky’s lyrical theme ached with tender melancholy, often recitative-like in its explorations.  A growing excitement was generated in the accelerando passage, in the dialogue between first violin and cello around the busy texture of the accompanying inner lines.  Driving motor rhythms propelled the music to the close, the tone seeming to focus and strengthen as resolution seemed in reach.  This was a sensitive and imaginative reading of a quartet which is such a representative and powerful emblem of the players’ native Czech heritage.

The Wihan Quartet released a recording of Janáček’s first String Quartet on the Nimbus Alliance label earlier this year (review), and that disc also included Dvořák’s G major Quartet Op.106, one of the composer’s late works which was written upon his return to Prague in 1895, after three years in New York.  It has plenty of Czech flavour but also a challengingly expansive, even diffuse, structure.

The denser, fuller sound – after the sparse selectivity of the Janáček – grabbed one’s attention.  And, the Wihan wove the two themes – the first rhythmic and leaping, the second more folky – of the Allegro moderato into a rich texture, and created a high-spirited energy.  Indeed, there was a sense of restlessness as the material seemed ceaselessly and joyfully to reinvent and extend itself.  Changing tone colour took us through different emotional terrain: bright and confident in the exposition, darker in the minor-key sections of the development.  Čepicky’s high-lying melodies were exquisitely spun, perfectly phrased and focused.  The following Adagio ma no troppo was more reflective in mood, the soulfulness enhanced by a wide vibrato at the start and the rich colouring of the lower strings and first violin’s melodic climb up the G and D strings.  At times the melody assumed an improvisatory quality, circling above the repeating patterns in the lower voices.  A slight release came with the major-key episode before the music built to an excited climax; if the tuning of the double-stopped cadential material was less than perfect, there was no absence of grandeur.  In the concluding section, there was some particularly lovely playing from violist Jakub Čepicky, son of leader Leoš who has replaced Jiři Zigmund, who retired from the Wihan Quartet in 2014.

The Scherzo was characterised by almost violent contrasts of dynamic and the players exhibited superb control as Čepicky dared to lift the bow quite high above the string to create a light but slightly jittery spiccato, while the lower three voices offered a more pronounced, longer stroke.  This is another fairly capacious movement and there are two trios, the second of which was gently sung, like a Czech lullaby.  The Allegro con fuoco could perhaps have had a little more ‘fire’ but the players showed great agility – especially Schulmeister, whose nimble fingers were kept busy! – and there was plenty of exuberance.

After the interval, the Wihan were joined by pianist Sofya Gulyak, the winner of the 2009 Leeds International Piano Competition, for a wonderfully fresh and jubilant performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet.  The Allegro brillante set off at a fairly swift pace, almost creating the impression of commencing in medias res, but what was so interesting was that when the piano alone announced the first theme there was a greater spaciousness and sense of reflection, as if Gulyak was allowing herself to cogitate and explore, before the strings’ restatement injected fresh impetus.  This give-and-take, repeated through the movement, never inspired a sense of ‘conflict’; rather, a conversation of equal but different voices was created.  In the fast and furious passages Gulyak’s finger-work was crisp and clean; no matter how animated the music became, melody remained primary; we sensed excitement rather than fury.

The piano’s descending arpeggio at the opening of the second movement, ‘In moda d’una Marcia’, had a lazy dreaminess, and the strings’ ensuing quiet march was reserved until the viola’s enrichment of the melodic line spread to the other solo utterances.  The music was richly expressive but, again, pain and angst were kept at bay; sentiment was deep, but this was true revelling in Romantic sensibility.  The rhythmic counterpoint – threes against fours – between piano and strings lifted the mood after the restraint of the march, while the Agitato episode had real bite and spirit.  The frequent transitions between the varied sections were sensitively and skilfully controlled.

The players’ smiles as they raced through the ascending scales of the Scherzo confirmed the pleasure that the music communicated.  Again, the deftness of touch, rhythmic precision and accuracy of Gulyak’s torrents were astonishing, and a good balance was maintained between piano and strings.  The piano triplets in the first Trio had a beguiling fluidity, as the strings rocked an elongated melodic motif between them; the second Trio was a furious moto perpetuo.

The Allegro con fuoco was also characterised by unflagging energy and uplifting vigour: there was a real incisiveness to the sound in the piano’s dialogue with the first violin, but the gentler moments were silkier in tone.  The fugato coda raced enthusiastically home.  Indeed, the players had enjoyed themselves so much that they gave us another opportunity to hear part of the Scherzo again, as a joyous encore.

Claire Seymour

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