The opening of String Quartet 9 (tr. 1), though given ample momentum by the Wihan Quartet, has much of the character of a slow movement. It sports a first violin melody of sorrowful cast and a passionate expanded close in which all the quartet are involved before the character of the theme is illuminated by a more showily scored repeat. The second theme (1:28), for all its minor key opening is more companionable. The Wihans find in it a touch of the jocular yet the close of the exposition is haunted by reflective fragments. The development (6:52) begins eerily in B major. After a passage (7:46) which brings Brahms, the work’s dedicatee, to mind there’s an especially striking transformation of the second theme in the viola (7:54). The tremolando
treatment of the accompaniment in the recapitulation makes it more restless before a fiery coda (11:37). This is declamatory music and it’s passionately declaimed by the Wihans.
I compared the 1995 recording by the Vlach Quartet (Naxos 8.553373). Here are the comparative timings
The Vlach’s more measured tempo makes for a sadder, less colourful
opening, as is their tone generally in comparison with the Wihans.
However the Vlach’s second theme, presented with a Schubertian
lilt, is more thoughtful and melancholic. The Vlach’s development
has a colder, starry quality where the Wihans have more visionary
brightness. Overall the Vlach gives a strong, resolute account
but one with little hope. The greater impetus of the Wihan brings
more animation, a more optimistic urgency to the second theme
The second movement (tr. 2) has the characteristics of a scherzo and a polka without being fully either. On both counts this is because it withdraws from time to time into reflection, notably in the ‘scherzo’ coda (2:37). The Wihans catch the variations of pace which suggest those of mood. The Trio (3:21) is then more openly lyrical and sweetly savoured. Slightly more measured, the Vlach Quartet isn’t as jolly as the Wihan but brings a more rugged sense of dance. The Wihans are closer to the scherzo manner through a touch of swagger at the beginning and artistic toying in the coda. The Trio responds well to the greater contrast, air and expansiveness given to it by the Vlach.
Those moments of vision the Wihan Quartet found in the development of the first movement are extended now to the entire slow movement (tr. 3). Using muted strings, a hazy quality emerges yet there is also golden sheen to the upper register. The Wihans cogently display the seamless flow of expression with a fine sense of shape and progression. That said, perhaps this is music which needs more time to savour, in which case the more sustained account by the Vlach will satisfy more. The tension achieved by having muted strings for this soulful outpouring is then clearer. Both performances offer an intense experience of expressive playing, the Wihans the more sonorous, a touch more objective, yet eloquently revealing the take-up of the melody by all instruments in turn from 1:51 and the upper three from 5:32.
Clarity of articulation is at a premium in the opening theme of the finale (tr. 4) and the Wihans provide this with more crispness than the slightly abrupt Vlachs. It’s debatable whether the Wihans’ artier approach to the second theme (0:51) is preferable to the Vlachs’ more romantic archness. The Wihans’ development (4:02) keeps up an unwavering manner whereas the Vlachs treat this, unusually but refreshingly, as a calmer interlude before the resumption of brilliant drive. The Wihan’s presentation of the recapitulation of the second theme by all instruments in turn from 5:09 is nevertheless compelling.
String Quartet 14 has a more complex opening movement (tr. 5) though the Wihans’ colourful, contrasted and dramatic performance makes it sound, as it should - all of a piece. The opening of the first theme is presented soberly in the introduction, but cut short by protests. It then appears all brightness (1:12) with a second part (1:31) of languishing ease. In contrast there are elements of energy, a brief motif (1:46) and excited second theme canter (2:33). Is the whole movement more about mood than melody? Structure gives it coherence: the development features the first theme in repose (3:17), then in stress (3:54), while a sleekily ardent version of its second part appears in the viola (5:10).
I compared the 1990 recording by the Lindsays (ASV CDDCA 788). Here are the comparative timings. I give the Wihan’s finale timing before applause for exact comparison:-
The Lindsay’s introduction (1:29 against the Wihan’s 1:12) is
more meditative and studied than the Wihan but less warm. In the
main body of the movement the Wihan displays an attractive continuity
of line with lively if less marked contrasts than the Lindsay.
The Wihan is happier, more relaxed, less frenetic, easier on the
ear, though the Lindsay offers more winsome, nuanced treatment
of the second part of the first theme and a more magically poised
coda with more attention to the silences within the music.
The second movement scherzo (tr. 6) is a furiant in a playful, inconsequential manner yet with a solid close, appropriately somewhat underplayed by the Wihan. By making the opening the basis of organic growth Dvorák is able to explore melodic freedom and airborne potential in the first violin. An extensive Trio (1:44-4:30) is given a beautifully rounded performance by the Wihan, with the first violin lovingly echoed and supported by the cello in the opening section. In the second section (from 2:42) the first violin alone is most free and lyrical. The Lindsay’s account is spirited and intensely aware but neither as carefree nor as warm as the Wihan.
The fervent slow movement (tr. 7) is notable for its rich texture. When the first violin melody is repeated (0:45) it’s given to the second. The first has a sweet counter-melody but then the cello’s melodic role also becomes evident. This is all before the second half of the theme (1:28) which is at first more serious, later growing fiery in affirmation. The middle section (3:43) is little more than chromatic wandering yet the Wihan brings to it a disturbed, questioning ambience. The theme then returns in lighter vein allowing for a more celebratory but still passionate close. The Wihan catches all the nuances well with more warmth, colour and emotive charge than the Lindsay. I also prefer the Wihan’s faster tempo which brings a more natural flow. Though less spontaneous, the Lindsay also has much to offer: a greater quality of stillness, more dynamic range and a graver, more substantial middle section.
The finale (tr. 8) is a medley of three principal dance themes which develop from and flow into each other. This is done with a skill which both displays and enhances the sheer joy of this movement. The first dance is started by the cello, one player/dancer setting the others off. The second is a freer melody which suddenly yet apparently naturally arrives (1:57) as a relief from the somersaults around it. The third (3:10) is a more rounded and homely affair but all have their own calmer and more vigorous elements to savour. Here the Wihan’s steadier tempo than the Lindsay matches Dvorák’s Allegro non tanto
marking better, emphasising relish more than the Lindsays’ dexterity and virtuosity. With the Lindsay the calmer aspects are more contrasted but with the Wihan the seamless interchange of enjoyment and calm enables the quieter passages to sing more persuasively.
This Wihan Quartet live recording is forward and vivid, the audience unobtrusive. It gave me a lot of pleasure and I also liked the contrast of two Dvorák quartets from different periods. The earlier is more direct, the later more skilful in its artistry without forgetting the strength of melody and intensity of expression that make both works rewarding.