United Kingdom Wolf, Ravel, Dvořák: Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepický & Jan Schulmeister [violins], Jakub Čepický [viola], Michal Kaňka [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 3.1.2022. (CS)
Wolf – Italienische Serenade
Ravel – String Quartet in F
Dvořák – String Quartet in E-flat No. 10 Op.51
Central London was almost deserted on Monday evening, despite the unusually clement weather, the extended New Year-weekend and ongoing Omicron worries seeming to have kept workers, shoppers and revellers at home. Similarly, the audience at Wigmore Hall was fairly modest in size, but evidently eager, no doubt pleased that circumstances had allowed the 2022 musical calendar to get underway despite the persisting problems that venues and performers face.
It seemed to me to be a fair while since I’d heard the Wihan Quartet play, but, looking back through my files, I see that it wasn’t that long ago after all, their performance at Wigmore Hall in 2017, in memory of the co-founder of the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust, the late Pamela Majaro, being followed the next year by a recital of Mozart, Beethoven and Dvořák which brightened a cold February and which had me concluding that ‘Dvořák doesn’t get much better than this’.
There was more Dvořák on this occasion, but the recital began with a composer more commonly associated with lieder than with chamber music – Hugo Wolf. However, Wolf did complete three chamber works, all for string quartet. The Serenade was written in May 1887 and given the epithet ‘Italian’. The Wihan Quartet seemed to enjoy the freedom of Wolf’s episodic structure, capturing the Serenade’s light-hearted, often ironic, spirit. The opening was feathery and refined – lots of air between bow and string – yet there was an underlying ebullience and confidence, conveyed by the bright clarity of leader Leoš Čepický’s perky E string and lifted by the firm buoyancy of Michal Kaňka’s cello line. The movement between the various repetitions, quasi-recitative episodes, and instrumental dialogues was smoothly negotiated, a lovely suppleness characterising the frequent changes of colour, harmony and ambience. The textures were transparent allowing the detail to be heard and maintaining the mercurial mood, and there were moments of shadow, too, to complement the piquant playfulness. If the four players at times looked rather stern, they were clearly having fun! This was a sophisticated and subtle performance.
It was also a fitting prelude to the kaleidoscopic timbres and colours, and the rhythmic flightiness, of Ravel’s String Quartet in F, in which the Wihan’s performance – as good performances should and do – gave great pleasure while challenging my expectations and making me think. The Allegro moderato, très doux felt fairly brisk at the start, pushing forward, the warmth of the string voices given a charge of energy by the slight air of volatility that swept through the swelling and ebbing phrases. There were not so much accents in the inner voices as tugs and sways which eased into the more relaxed second subject, which was genteel and spacious – the Čepický brothers’ perfectly tuned unison melody singing freely above Jan Schulmeister’s quiet oscillations and Kaňka’s gently brushed but assuring pizzicatos. I did feel that there was a slight loss of momentum in the developmental passages, and the Wihan rarely indulged themselves at the climactic surges, but the coherence of the close of the movement was very persuasive, the homophony deepening texturally, the unwinding of the pulse expertly crafted, the mood quietly contemplative. Then, when the blind seemed to have been gently drawn down, the lower strings’ rising pizzicatos tenderly encouraged the first violin melody to turn upwards, and the slightest, comforting, chink of light was permitted in.
I’d have liked a bit more ‘snap’ in the pizzicatos which jangle and jive at the start of the Assez vif, très rythmé, but I was persuaded by the way, after the subdued shadows of the slower, muted episode, the Wihan held back the accelerando, keeping the pizzicatos on a tight leash, which made the eventual resumption of the dance even more joyful and free. There were some lovely lyrical exchanges in the Très lent, especially between Jakub Čepický and Kaňka, and the pulsing chords which gently nudge the former’s opening solo were beautifully tender and dreamy. Again, the Wihan turned the metrical and structural corners skilfully, bringing diverse and contradictory forces into a compellingly coherent whole. The final phrase tapered exquisitely into the ether: the nightfall was absolute. How sad, and infuriating, that a bronchial explosion of alarming forcefulness shattered the moment. The stirring growl of the opening of the Vif et agité – the heels of the players’ bows digging in tensely – was a fitting musical riposte, though the overall approach to the movement was more easeful than urgent. I would have liked a more reckless sense of ‘drive’, but the Wihan did capture the essential classical elegance of Ravel’s score, and a winning sense of peace and happiness intensified through the final exuberantly rich roar.
Finally, we had our dessert of Dvořák. And, if the String Quartet in E-flat Op.51 isn’t a light pudding then it’s also not an overly heavy dose of stodgy, hyperbolic high drama either. The Wihan’s performance was characterful but never overly sentimental or stickily sumptuousness: rhythm and taut ensemble were primary here – as was immediately evident in the sweet swaying and rocking of the first bars of the Allegro ma non troppo, the phrasing pleasingly fluid, with nuanced injection of rhythmic bite from time to time, but nothing that was not gracious and patrician. Perhaps some ensembles might go for a bit more passion and peasant earthiness, but the tunefulness, warmth and genuine sense of contentment was satisfying.
The variety of the Dumka-Andante alternations in the second movement was similarly absorbing. Kaňka strummed his ‘guitar’ with panache, while Čepický’s melody was soulful but never sagged under the weight of its own sentiment, and occasionally took flight with Bohemian bravura. The dialogue between the upper and lower voices in the Romanza was sweetly blended, and the whole movement had a calm, polished eloquence. Then, in the Finale: Allegro assai the breezy virtuosity took flight: Kaňka’s grin before the first note sounded was a sign that mischief was in store. The staccatos danced with delightful insouciance, and the conversational exchanges brimmed with brio. Only the greatest technical mastery can make such togetherness sound so effortless.
The encore – the Finale from the String Quartet in D minor by Jakub Jan Ryba (1765-1815), whose most famous work is his Czech Christmas Mass, Hey Master! – offered some Mendelssohnian charm to conclude a satisfying concert.