Recorded in Prague’s beautiful Convent of St Agnes, this is a wonderful document of a significant segment of the core quartet repertoire. Collectors may already own the Alban Berg Quartet complete Beethoven Quartets on DVD (EMI: 3 38573 5, 3 38586 9 and 3 38595 9). This set, although by no means as complete - and including the transcription of the Piano Sonata Op. 14 No. 1 - acts as a useful and thoroughly enjoyable complement.
The first of the Op. 18 set introduces, in its first movement, the great vim and vigour of the Wihan Quartet; just as importantly, the slow movement is gloriously expressive. Disembodied sections are especially memorable, while held-breath silences and dramatic outbursts point towards the later Beethoven. There is little to add, in fact, to my comments on this performance in the CD version
, except to say it that is additionally atmospheric to watch them in action in such lovely surroundings. The CD version did not include the composer’s transcription of the Piano Sonata in E, Op. 14 No. 1. Beethoven transposes the piece into F. Any pianist will attest to the fact that the piano sonata almost feels like a quartet reduction, anyway. Indeed the piece works beautifully when played by quartet. The Wihans scamper around effortlessly in the first movement, while the central minuet/scherzo hybrid is superbly shady. The finale is technically astonishing from all four players.
The first “Razumovsky” quartet shows the first signs of weakness. There is little sense of the great here, but signs of technical strain are intermittently present. My preferred DVD version of this remains the Takács Quartet on Decca (coupled with Schubert “Death and the Maiden” and Haydn’s “Bird”, 074 3140). I concur absolutely with Brian Wilson in his review
when he says that “in the final analysis, the sheer beauty of the playing wins over the toughness to an extent which I thought came down just on the wrong side of this balancing act”. The Wihan Quartet finds some energy in the Scherzo, but without the vital sense of Beethovenian struggle. Similarly, the slow movement’s polar extremes are not far enough apart, so that the beauty of tone (which is lovely) masks an unwillingness to go far enough inside, while the outbursts remain somewhat held back. The finale is again rather weak, never quite connecting with the dynamic spirit of the music. The result is several “sags” in the structure.
The playing order appears designed to emphasise the Wihan’s connection with the early quartets, because after the first “Razumovsky”, the open-air G Major of Op. 18 No. 2 comes as a breath of fresh air. The Adagio cantabile
begins in glorious fashion and shows the Wihan at its best; similarly the cheeky Scherzo.
The “Harp” is given an expressive performance which serves to underline any moments of modernity, thus linking it forward to the late quartets; actually, it is the great Op. 131 that stumps up next. The Wihan brings great charm to the first movement passages that generate the quartet’s nickname, too. The calm of the slow movement is balanced by the fiery scherzo - the Wihan seems particularly on this movement’s wavelength. By emphasising the charm of the finale’s main theme, the Wihan succeeds in bringing out the contrasts found in this piece more than most. A most rewarding reading.
The great C sharp minor is a challenge for any quartet. All credit to the players for locating the disturbing undercurrents to the first movement so accurately. For a young quartet, they seem to be able to enter the late Beethoven world well and if they do not quite enjoy the communion demonstrated by, say, the Alban Berg Quartet, they demonstrate astonishing maturity. I do not quite enjoy the lilt of the second movement as much as does my colleague Patrick C. Waller
; I find them quite earthbound, but the slower movements remain beautifully expressive. And while I agree with my colleague that the central variations are splendidly rendered, the Wihan cannot come near to trumping the excellent Colorado Quartet
on Parnassus, for example - a set I recommend you try.
The second DVD begins with Op. 18 No. 6 in a delightful reading. The delicacy of the slow movement is particularly noteworthy, as are the fresh dance rhythms of the third movement. The famous “La melancolia” that opens the finale is beautiful. If the drama is not quite raw enough later in the same movement, this remains a good, live interpretation of Op. 18 No. 6.
Finally, the great Op. 130. The second movement Alla tedesca
is a true Presto
, and there is some tremendously characterful articulation in the next movement. And yet this is not great late-Beethoven playing. There are moments when one wonders whether passages have been fully thought through – Beethoven challenges perceptions of phrase, harmony and structure everywhere, and it takes many decades to get them all fully under the skin. The interplay of the “alla tedesca” is beautifully managed. Once again I find myself in agreement with Patrick Waller, here in regard to the tempo of the Cavatina
- a tad too fast to fully do justice to the movement’s magnificent richness. Good to hear the “Grosse Fuge” at the end. The Wihan Quartet gives its all to project the rugged and the barren, the two predominant areas this piece addresses.
In his review
of the CD set of the Op. 18 Quartets, Brian Wilson refers to Nimbus’s copious notes; no such luck here, I’m afraid, with no insert whatsoever. There is a documentary, though, as an extra, which one must suppose acts in lieu.
Camera angles include one for all four players which includes the first few rows of the audience, a shot which reveals the high microphone placement in front of the quartet, and appropriate solo shots.
The “extra” is a fascinating and expertly produced and directed subtitled Czech film that outlines the Wihan Quartet’s origins via recollections from the players themselves, as well as giving rehearsal footage and character portraits of each player. Some of the statements are controversial - one particular one about why no female quartet can last more than a decade springs to mind - but that was probably the idea. There are also glimpses into the members’ private lives (the second violin seems to collect model elephants while the violist reveals his enthusiasm for Czech folk music) and each member explains how he ended up playing the instrument he does.
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purchase the complete Beethoven Quartets on CD - see special