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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
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6105 [77:43 + 76:44]

Experience Classicsonline

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 Competition.

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 counterpoint.

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 Month..

Colin Clarke

see also review by Brian Wilson


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