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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. DDD
ARCO DIVA UP 0086-2 131 [48:33]

Smetana’s two string quartets were written in 1874 towards the end of his life, after the onset of sudden deafness due to syphilis. As with Beethoven’s 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 Dvořák’s 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 Wihan’s performance has stunning immediacy which brings it to life. The first movement’s 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 cello’s 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 violin’s high E that represents the composer’s 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 composer’s 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 this music.

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 – to follow this there is no need for any other music.

Patrick C Waller

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