Ludwig van BEETHOVEN(1770-1827)
String Quartets, Op. 18 (1798-1800): No. 1 in Fa [28:59];
No. 2 in Gb [23:59]; No. 3 in Dc [24:39];
No. 4 in C minord [23:28]; No. 5 in Ae [28:47];
No. 6 in B flatf [24:33].
Wihan Quartet (Leoš
Čepický, Jan Schulmeister (violins); Jiří
Žigmund (viola); Aleš Kaspřík (cello)).
rec. live, Convent of St Agnes, Prague, a18 October,
b8 November and c6 December, 2007, d17
January, e7 February and f13 March 2008. DDD
NI 6105 [77:43 + 76:44]
The Czech Wihan Quartet was formed in 1985. They are described
by Nimbus as 'heirs to the great Czech musical tradition',
and the present set does indeed seem to bear this out. They
are also Quartet-in-Residence at Trinity College of Music, London;
they won prizes at the Prague Spring Festival and both First
and Audience prizes at the London International String Quartet
These are, as the heading attests, live recordings from the
Church of St Agnes, Prague. Applause is included after each
quartet, but otherwise there is no intrusive audience noise.
The tonal richness of the Wihan Quartet is immediately apparent
from the very opening of the first quartet. So is their penchant
for eloquent musical discussion, as themes are thrown out and
answered by the various instruments. Dynamism balances the eloquence,
though, especially in the development section of the first movement,
where one experiences more than usually the spareness of Beethoven's
textures. The Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato, which
follows, is, in the Wihan's hands, a magnificent utterance
that seeks to transcend the limitations of Beethoven's so-called
'First Period'. The pianissimo passage around 5:30 is
truly shot through with hushed expectancy. The ensuing outbursts
seem perhaps a tad muted.
The Scherzo displays tight ensemble and vigour. The Wihan's
violinists' tone is most approachable. The finale includes
a fugal section that is expertly delineated. Overall, the last
movement is full of life.
The Second Quartet almost begins with a closing gesture - such
is the nature of the very opening phrase. The Wihan Quartet
injects taste into Beethoven's wit, finding every opportunity
for inserting suave turns of phrase in amongst the general playfulness.
This is youthful music, so it is entirely apposite that a talented
youthful quartet can bring out its best.
The Third Quartet, in D major, holds a first movement that represents
virtuoso composition at its finest. Kofi Agawu, in his recent
book, 'Music as discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic
Music' (Oxford Studies in Music Theory, 2008, ISBN 9780195370249)
identifies a number of strategies Beethoven uses, including
the use of what he calls 'topics' - references to musical
types, such as fanfare, cadenza, alla zoppa. The Wihan Quartet
certainly seems to share Agawu's enthusiasm for the piece.
Their first movement is exuberant in the extreme, revelling
in the unending invention, the conversations between the instruments
and the sheer joie de vivre. The second movement, an
Andante con moto, includes much suave dialogue as well
as moments of what can best be described as witty beauty. Less
'perfect' than the Alban Berg Quartet, younger at heart
than the Amadeus Quartet, the Wihan Quartet makes its own mark
on this work. By far the Wihan's best movement, though,
is the playful finale, where instruments chase each other like
kittens. There is an element of the players getting a little
carried away in the moment - it is live, after all - and losing
focus on technical issues around four minutes in, but this remains
a thoroughly enjoyable reading. The end is not quite as witty
as I have heard elsewhere.
The booklet notes (Misha Donat) seem particularly down on the
C minor, No. 4 of the set, suggesting that some passages are
best thought of as orchestral reduction. He quotes Hugo Riemann
in his defence of his stance, but I do not hold that 'much
of the work betrays an awkwardness of a kind that is not to
be found elsewhere in Beethoven's quartets' (booklet,
page 9). The Wihan Quartet, if they have read the notes, seem
not to agree, either. This is a determined reading, the opening
Allegro ma non tanto fitting in so well with the characteristic
early Beethoven C-minor feel - it is like a cousin of the Piano
Sonata Op. 10/1. I accept that the chords before 6:30 are seemingly
orchestrally conceived, but they sound to me more as referring
to that style rather than a miscalculation per se.
The central two movements are a Scherzo and a Menuetto. The
rather gentle Scherzo - it is marked Andante scherzoso quasi
Allegretto - is beautifully caught here, as is the shiftiness
of the Menuetto. The finale brims over with energy.
Donat in the booklet notes cross-references the A major with
Mozart's quartet in the same key, K464, finding structural
parallels galore. There is, indeed, something Mozartian about
the extrovert discourse of the first movement. Beethoven delights
in counterpoint - the Wihan Quartet just loses the contrapuntal
momentum about three minutes in - both here and in the second
movement Menuetto. The variations that make up the Andante
cantabile form the heart of this quartet and are given a
splendid performance, though, varied and concentrated. The concentration,
in fact, informs the finale, which is again shot through with
The final, B flat, quartet is a major utterance, and the Wihans
dig in in no uncertain terms, seemingly to imply a rustic element
to contrast with the more overtly civilised sections. The Adagio
ma non troppo includes some of the finest playing on the
set - it just sounds like one of those performances when everything
came together, and certainly bodes well for forthcoming instalments
of the cycle. Indeed, the slow and intense initial section of
the finale, marked by Beethoven as 'La Melancolia',
shares this rightness, and its recurrences later on in the movement
make a tremendous impression.
These are clearly youthful accounts, and there is enough here
to spark interest as well as much to provide enjoyment. Those
who wish for more experience should hunt out the Alban Berg
Quartet - live on DVD, if you want the added frisson, perhaps.
Note that the Wihan Quartet has previously recorded the complete
Beethoven Quartets for the Lotos label (LT0148-2, spread over
ten discs). The ensemble also records for the Matous and Popron,
Universal and Arco Diva labels. For an example of the last mentioned,
see my 2006 review of quartets by Schoenberg
and Pfitzner, a MusicWeb International Disc of the
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