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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No 1 in E minor From My Life (1876) [29:19]
String Quartet No 2 in D minor (1883) [19:19]
Wihan Quartet
rec. Domovina Studio, Prague, October-November 2005.January, February 2006. DDD
ARCO DIVA UP 0086-2 131 [48:33]
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This disc was a June RECORDING OF THE MONTH

The Wihan Quartet have been going for 25 years now and, until recently have been relatively unknown in Britain. I first saw this Czech Quartet two years ago and was blown away. Since then Iíve seen them twice and acquired some of their discs. This CD of the two quartets by the "Father of Czech music" brings performances of the highest level deserving the widest possible currency.

The first quartet is by far the better known. Right from the opening chords we are away in the world of Czech music; the listener also spots the influence this work had on DvořŠk. The movements are, as implied autobiographical; firstly we have the youthful romantic and the quartet illustrate this poignantly. The second movement describes his dancing and falling in love; then comes the largo sostenuto which covers his increasing success and finally Vivace that conveys the "whistling" in his ears. The composer, who so splendidly conveyed the river in "Vltava", is equally expressive in describing the human condition.

The Wihan are right inside this music, as they were in the recent DvořŠk ďAmerican QuartetĒ. The speeds are slightly slower than the norm but I didnít feel this was over-leisurely and the recording captures the quartet in fine sound. As a bit of fun I compared their playing of the final movement, which begins so life-affirming and ends in resigned acceptance, with the old Hollywood Quartet (Testament). I felt that whilst the vintage group were splendid, there was more of a "Czech" feel with the Wihan. Make no mistake this piece is a great quartet and the Wihan give a splendid rendition.

The Second Quartet is much more enigmatic and was written towards the end of Smetanaís life. Smetana summed it up in a single sentence "It presents the turmoil in a man who has lost his hearing". It doesnít have such memorable melodies and frankly I donít find it in the same class as "From My Life". It is therefore unsurprising that it is much rarer on CD and often Number One has a stronger coupling; often DvořŠk. However, one must admire a composition that was written against doctorsí orders. He clearly found it a struggle: "If I do not write a new idea straightaway, I do not know after a while, let alone half a day later, what it was". The Wihan give it a good performance but I think you would be advised to play it separately and not straight after the First.

Judged by itself this is a splendid disc and I urge you to buy it. Picky caveats are only that there is room for thirty minutes more music; possibly an obscure DvořŠk piece, such as Op. 34 that the Wihan play, would have been good. Iím sure most collectors of chamber music have versions of "From My Life" but I strongly recommend this disc to all.

David R Dunsmore

see also review by Patrick Waller June RECORDING OF THE MONTH



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