The Wihan Quartet Put Winter at Bay at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák: Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepický & Jan Schulmeister [violins], Jakub Čepický [viola], Michal Kaňka [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 24.2.2018. (CS)

Wihan Quartet with Michal Kaňka (cello)
Wihan Quartet with Michal Kaňka (cello)

Mozart – String Quartet in B-flat major K458, ‘The Hunt’
Beethoven – String Quartet in C major Op.59 No.3, ‘Razumovsky’
Dvořák – String Quartet in A-flat major Op.105

There is a mysterious appeal about a String Quartet whose membership has not altered since the ensemble’s inception.  I guess that this ‘mystique’ derives from the assumption or belief that only after years of playing together can four musicians truly speak with one voice.  But, while the membership of the Amadeus Quartet went unchanged for 40 years, until the death of viola player Peter Schidlof led to the disbandment of the ensemble, in practice changes of membership are more common and regular.  And, while it must be a challenge to find a new member with whom the other players feel an innate musical and personal rapport, who’s to say that an injection of a new voice and fresh ideas into the conversation is not a positive part of an ensemble’s musical and artistic growth?

The Wihan Quartet, founded in 1985, have undergone a couple of changes in recent years.  When, in 2014, viola player Jiří Zigmund retired from the Quartet, Jakub Čepický, son of first violinist Leoš, settled easily into his ensemble.  Then, in 2017, cellist Ales Kasprik decided to stop playing in the Quartet.  The Wihan’s website acknowledges that this was ‘a difficult time for the Quartet’ and the subsequent months have found them performing with two different cellists, Matej Stepanek, from the Academy of Performing Arts Prague and Michal Kaňka, cellist with the Prazak Quartet.

On this occasion, it was Kaňka who was in the cellist’s chair – as was the case when I last heard the Wihan perform, also at Wigmore Hall, on the occasion of a memorial concert for the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust’s co-founder, Pamela Majaro.  Then, I judged, ‘From the evidence here, Kaňka is a good ‘fit’.  His tone is full, and at times quite ‘dark’, but his bass provided strong directional force.’  This ‘strength’ was again evident during this recital too, although the repertoire being performed was very different and there were times when I found Kaňka’s firm sound a little too unyielding, more muscular than his partners, though his playing has undoubted elegance, poise and graciousness.  Jakub Čepický’s soft-grained tone diffuses the blend though.  And, while leader Leoš Čepický sits ram-rod straight with an air of assurance and subtle wit, his tone incisively etched, and second fiddler Jan Schulmeister leans into and over his instrument, tactilely making it sing so warmly, the wonderful results of the pair’s musical conversations and duets proves that contrast can also mean complement and coherence.

With the ‘Beast From the East’ threatening to turn March into the reprise of winter rather that the start of spring, without the Allegro vivace assaix of Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet, the Wihan spring-boarded us into the relaxed warmth of summer.  Gestures were freely transferred, trills and dynamic contrasts were vibrant, the tone was full and sincere, and after well-shaped urgency in the development section, a brilliant ebullience marked the recapitulation.  A rather full vibrato in the Menuetto weighed down the dance a little, but the melodic and textural definition of the Adagio were refined: there were lovely dialogues between first violin and cello, and some beautifully telling motivic interplay in the inner voices.  The players opted for a slightly ‘cooler’ tone in the finale which enabled them to skate breezily through the Allegro assai.

The appreciation of broad structure that the Wihan displayed in the Mozart – for example, in shaping the long coda of the first movement – was even more discerning and assured in Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major Op.59 No.3, in which there was a prevailing optimism about the ‘quest’ upon which they embarked.  Again, a wide vibrato enriched the striking changes of timbre and harmonic slippages of the slow introduction to the Allegro vivace, but with the arrival of the latter the mists cleared.  Čepický’s theme perched cleanly on the silence beneath, initiating plentiful virtuosic athleticism as the movement unfolded.  Despite the relentlessness of the invention, there was often a delightful ‘tongue-in-cheek’ simplicity about the Wihan’s playing, a quasi-antidote to the complexities of the harmonically hazy Andante con moto. 

The second movement Andante theme and variations meandered but the direction was never in doubt, guided by Kaňka’s cello pizzicato – a sort of low drone, ever consistent of tone and dynamic.  The rhythmic seductiveness of the upper voices created a yearning air, and though there were moments when a tempest threatened to throw the journey off course, a quiet sense of purpose prevailed, beautifully articulated in the tender closing bars.  Here, Kaňka’s sure-footed triplet-quavers led the ensemble safely home.  The lucidly slithering semi-quavers of the Menuetto almost seemed to poke fun at Beethoven’s parenthetical ‘grazioso’, and the tuning of the octave unisons was impressive.  In the Allegro molto, fugue and sonata form combined with rhetorical spiritedness and clean brilliance, and there was a wonderful sense of freedom in the rush to the close.

Though Dvořák began his String Quartet in A-flat major Op.105 during his final days as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, he did not complete the work until he had returned to Prague (and, after the Op.106 quartet had been composed), and it’s tempting to hear this A-flat quartet as an expression of a joyful home-coming.  Fittingly, then, the warmth and fullness that the Wihan had summoned in Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet here bloomed into an even more visceral intensity but one which did not mar the eloquence or definition of line.  Indeed, after the tensions of the Adagio introduction they slipped with insouciant ease into the flowing first subject of the Allegro appassionato, and in the development section the individual voices spoke with almost soloistic strength and character.  The scherzo sailed on the elated ebullience of the Czech furiant, propelled by the cello’s vibrant fleet pizzicato flight, but the trio was not without lyricism.  If the Lento e molto cantabile allowed us to enjoy the beguiling interplay of the two violins, it was once again the confident articulation of the form of the final Allegro non troppo that most impressed.

The Wihan Quartet’s recording of Dvořák’s Op.34/Op.105 quartets on the Nimbus label was chosen as a ‘Recording of the Year’ by MusicWeb International and BBC Music Magazine.  MWI’s reviewer, Brian Wilson, remarked: ‘Unwilling to dissect Quartet No.14 movement by movement, I listened to the Wihan performance all through and enjoyed it so much that, with equally good recording, it’s likely to become my future benchmark against which to judge other performances.’

I agree.  Despite the occasional tuning blip – which unfortunately marred a couple of major cadences – Dvořák doesn’t get much better than this.

Claire Seymour

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