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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, B. 192 (Op. 106) [39:49]
Josef SUK (1874–1935)
Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’, Op.35 [6.54]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ [18:28]
Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepický, Jan Schulmeister (violins); Jakub Čepický (viola); Aleš Kaspřík (cello))
rec. Martinů Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague, 30-31 May 2015

This is an immediately appealing disc: great Czech quartets by Dvořák, Suk, and Janáček, played by a great Czech quartet, the Wihan. By any per capita calculation, ten million Czechs surely do more than their share in producing and performing classical music to a gratifyingly high standard.

The big work on the disc is Dvořák’s string quartet, no. 13 in G, op 106. This piece is rather massive in scale for a string quartet. Some might find it too long, and overly symphonic in its ambitions but they would miss the wonderful melodies, colourful timbres and dramatic development. All these Dvořák poured into this, his penultimate string quartet. Composed immediately after his return from the United States of America, the work shares some of the spirit and scale of his last three symphonies, only pressed into the smaller form of the string quartet.

Dvořák’s quartet needs a big sound to work, which the Wihan Quartet provides, along with wonderful ensemble, sharp rhythms and forceful interpretations. The performance is large-scale, luxurious and full of high drama. It is not sentimental.

The Pavel Haas String Quartet recently recorded this work to critical acclaim. Its tempi are a bit faster, and it plays with greater urgency, sometimes making Dvořák sound a touch more neurotic than usual. That said, the Wihan’s Dvořák lacks nothing for excitement, and the occasionally slower tempo allows a clearer hearing of how Dvořák crafted those snapping rhythms. This is a warm-hearted performance, akin to the Wihan Quartet’s recent recording of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, op. 81.

The Wihan brings an appropriate amount of neurosis to its performance of Janáček’s String Quartet 1 (“The Kreutzer Sonata”). A recording by the younger Pavel Haas String Quartet provides a touch more torment, but the Wihan’s account is creepy enough for most, full of fragmented drama over interrupted ostinatos. It also stands up well to the recent recording by the Takács Quartet, with comparably gorgeous sound.

The shortest and least familiar piece is by Josef Suk: “Meditation on the old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’.” The chorale dates from the Thirteenth Century, shaped over the years into a prayer for intercession by the patron saint of the Czech people. Suk composed this in a burst of patriotism with the outbreak of World War I, perhaps anticipating a Czech nation finally free of Austrian rule. For a patriotic piece, it is striking for being restrained instead of militant. The Wihan offers an ethereal reading of this rather serious work.

This disc features excellent, rather close-up recorded sound. The CD booklet notes are clearly written and informative. No one who finds this combination of Dvořák, Suk, and Janáček alluring is likely to be disappointed by these carefully crafted and powerful performances.

Richard Kraus
Previous review: Michael Wilkinson



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