Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets: No. 7 in F, Op. 59 No. 1 (1805/06) [38:58]; F, H34/Op. 14 No. 1 (1801/02) [13:03]; No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2 (1805/06) [34:37]; No. 9 in C, Op. 59 No. 3 (1805/06) [30:38]; No. 10 in E flat, Op. 74, “Harp” (1809) [30:44]; No. 11 in F minor, “Serioso” (1810) [21:01].
Wihan String Quartet (Leoš Cepický, Jan Schulmeister (violins); Jirí Žigmund (viola); Aleš Kasprík (cello)).
rec. live, Convent of St. Agnes, Prague, October 2007-February 2008.
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6109 [3 CDs: 54:04 + 65:26 + 51:47]
The Wihan Quartet’s live accounts of the Beethoven Quartets are ever stimulating and searching, as this three-disc set underlines. The youth of the quartet surfaces in enthusiasm and a questing, fresh approach that should not be undervalued. The recording reminds me of the techniques used for the Quartetto Italiano’s Beethoven cycle – harsh at times but fully revealing of all detail.
The spirit of spontaneity runs through the first movement of Op. 59/1. Amazingly, the risks are supported by a technical excellence that means they all seem to pay off. Some may find the recording too close, but the plus side is a remarkable clarity. The structure of the first movement is revealed with clarity, and yet there is an unstoppable momentum there, too. The Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando is perhaps a tad earthbound. One marvels at the group’s sense of ensemble and inter-instrument communication, but it does not quite hit the heart of Beethoven. The Adagio molto e mesto is another matter, though. Here there is true beauty married to total concentration. The “mesto” part of Beethoven’s instruction is patent throughout.
The first Razumovsky is coupled with Beethoven’s transcription of the Op. 14/1 piano sonata. I have mentioned on this site before how the piano part does seem particularly drawn to four-part writing. The Wihan Quartet’s reading is fresh and full of vigour. The members of the quartet revel in the first movement semiquaver exchanges as much as they bask in the warmth of the second movement Trio. There is plenty of character here – the Wihans evidently refuse to treat this as second-rate Beethoven, or even a second-rate Beethoven Quartet, for that matter. The first violin laudably avoids any sense of sliding in the chromatic decorations towards the end of the finale, a finale that is rounded off in massively confident fashion, as if the quartet were mightily pleased with what they have done. As well they might be.
The second “Razumovsky”, the E-Minor, is given a gritty, determined reading. The first movement oozes energy, while the sublime second is one of the finest things I have heard the Wihans do. The contained ecstasy, the concentration and the tonal finesse are all present and add up to a reading that exudes a maturity far beyond the quartet members’ years. The excellence of Leoš Cepický’s first violin is of particular note: sweet-toned, and with superb articulation. The slow, harmonically groping introduction to the third of the Razumovsky’s is superbly rendered; the joy of the allegro is somehow tempered, however. The slightly dry recording does not help here. The generally relaxed Andante con moto quasi allegretto is beautifully rendered and here the slightly harsh sound for the outbursts underlines their anguish. The triumph of the performance is the scampering Presto finale. The Wihan’s approach is slightly lighter than the norm here, and it works well.
The “Harp” quartet’s opening acts as real balm if heard straight after Op. 59/3. The Wihans seem more relaxed in the Allegro, although as the pizzicatos turn into bowed patterns, the temperature rises spectacularly. The Presto third movement contains real vehemence, while the “sighing” gestures that open the finale are simply exquisite, leading to a sense of the exploratory as Beethoven’s variations unfold. Finally, the “Serioso” quartet, although on the basis of the opening gesture it should be renamed “Furioso”. The Wihan’s youthful approach suits the first movement perfectly. Overall, the Wihan’s almost deconstructionist approach here of presenting the music barely pays huge dividends.
A most rewarding set.

Colin Clarke
Accounts that are ever stimulating and searching. Enthusiasm and a questing, fresh approach that should not be undervalued. Most rewarding. ... see Full Review