Smetanaís two string
quartets were written in 1874 towards
the end of his life, after the onset
of sudden deafness due to syphilis.
As with Beethovenís last quartets they
are deeply personal works that contain
some of his greatest music. In my view
they are at least the equal of any of
quartets. Both are in four movements
and rather episodic in structure, the
first is much better known and has an
overtly autobiographical subtitle. More
often than not it has been separated
from its partner on disc and the present
logical coupling in fine recorded
sound is very welcome. The Wihan Quartet
comprises Czech artists and has been
established for more than twenty years.
It has a solid international reputation.
Back on home turf they prove ideal interpreters
of this music.
A loose programme for
the first quartet was defined by the
composer and the Wihanís performance
has stunning immediacy which brings
it to life. The first movementís viola
solo is notably impassioned and the
playing then develops opposing undercurrents
of abandon and youthful idealism. The
polka dances a wide range of emotions
and the slow movement is deeply felt
at a very slow tempo. After the celloís
rhapsodic introduction, the main theme
is given with almost unbearable intensity.
In the impassioned outburst which follows,
this intensity is surpassed and, miraculously,
yet again in the reprise. The finale
comes almost as light relief apart from
the intervention of first violinís high
E that represents the composerís tinnitus.
The ending is appropriately indeterminate
and suggests that Smetana was here looking
forward as much as backward.
The second quartet
was written against medical advice not
long before Smetana was committed to
the asylum in which he died. It is a
slighter and more elusive work than
its predecessor. None of the four movements
starts at a slow tempo but there are
considerable variations in mood and
tempo within each movement. The first
movement, described by the composer
as "Depression and chaos following
deafness", opens with a dark passage
in unison. This is very brief - but
recurs and is developed - and is followed
by deeply lyrical and yearning music.
Contrary to the composerís description,
this latter vein ultimately wins out.
The opening of the second movement is
not dissimilar to the first but a lilting
polka supervenes and leads to a trio
which is initially poignant before an
impassioned section leads back to the
polka. The third movement combines elements
of fugue and march, again apparently
derived from the same opening material.
The brief finale is marked Presto
and its overtly classical ending here
seems ironic. As in the first quartet,
the playing of Wihan quartet is alive
to every mood and nuance. In their hands,
there is hope as well as tragedy in
The music-making on
this disc has a feeling of "rightness"
that makes comparisons largely superfluous.
I started to listen to the Moyzes quartet
(similarly coupled on Naxos) but found
them too civilised and comfortable,
and the Amadeus Quartet in the first
quartet - who are good in many ways
- but soon gave up. Also superfluous
would be any complaint about the short
playing time Ė to follow this there
is no need for any other music.
Patrick C Waller