String Quartet No.9 in D minor Op.34 [33:57]
String Quartet No.14 in A flat Op.105 [33:33]
The Wihan Quartet (Jan Schulmeister (violin); Leoš Cepický (violin);
Aleš Kasprík (cello); Jirí Žigmund (viola))
rec. live, Convent of St. Agnes, Prague. 2010. Stereo. DDD
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6115 [67:30]
The Dvorák quartets represent a relatively crowded corner of
the repertoire when it comes to commercial recordings, but there
are a few things about the Wihan Quartet's continuing series
that have the potential to set it apart. From this performance,
it is clear that they are heirs to a strong tradition of Czech
string playing. The name is instructive; Hanuš Wihan was the
cellist of the Bohemian String Quartet, whose many premieres
included the Dvorák Op.105. And much as I love the violin playing
on these recordings, it is the viola and cello that really shine.
That suggests a certain democracy about the way this music is
played. This too chimes with the composer's approach to the
ensemble, he was never one to forget about the lower strings,
and while the music is usually melodic and homophonic, the activity
in the lower voices is what brings it to life.
The recording was made live at the Convent of St. Agnes in Prague.
It is a good acoustic, a little boxy perhaps, but this only
serves to increase the intimacy of the sound. For all the Bohemian
colour in this performance, there is also a certain restraint.
The players never launch themselves into the folk melodies or
abandon the pulse in favour of free rubato. I wonder if the
ecclesiastical venue has tempered their passions? Perhaps not,
I think it more likely that my surprise at the sophistication
of these interpretations is due to a stereotypical view of Czech
performance as only a step removed from rustic peasantry. I
happily stand corrected, and salute the Wihan's impeccable refinement.
But, as I say, there is little in the way of excess here. There
is plenty of light and shade, and plenty of dynamic contrast,
but the timbal palette and the range of dynamics is strictly
limited. Their tone is not warm as such, and there is always
an edge to it. But this too works in the composer's favour,
it means that the melodic lines are always clearly defined,
even in his more complex developmental passages.
Of the two quartets, the Op.105 is the better, both in terms
of composition and performance. The players' occasionally dispassionate
approach risks trivialising the climaxes and sectional contrasts
in Op.34. There are some occasional tuning problems in the violins
in Op.34 as well, although these are less of an issue in Op.105.
The latter work is by far the more famous, and I wonder if its
superior performance here has benefited from, or is a response
to, the many recordings that already exist. It is more constrained
than many readings, but the music gains an inner life through
a very localised rubato. Take, for example, the cello turn figures
that open the first and last movements. The duration of each
of these phrases is in tempo, but there is a perceptible ebb
and flow between the durations of the individual notes. It is
a great approach, ensuring the metric structure of the movements
and sections, while always allowing the melodies to breathe.
One final commendation, to the cellist Aleš Kasprik. In many
ways, he is in the ideal situation. The quartet as a whole play
with a directed, focused tone, and that is always going to benefit
the cello over the potentially screechy violins. The acoustic
also favours his tone, and his sound is always crystal clear,
whatever the scoring. Nevertheless, he is clearly a very fine
player indeed. He is able to continually balance the chamber
music paradox of sounding like a soloist and an ensemble player
at the same time. Like the rest of the ensemble, he can create
drama in the music without resorting to extremes, and the quartet's
variety of textures is founded on his range from the guttural
and woody to the focused and lyrical. He is the quartet's secret
weapon. Fitting indeed, then, that they are named after Dvorák's
cellist. Gavin Dixon
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