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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 13 in G major, B. 192, Op. 106 (1895) [39:49] Josef SUK (1874–1935)
Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale St. Wenceslas, Op. 35 (1914) [6.54] Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.1 Kreutzer Sonata (1923) [18:28]
Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepický (violin), Jan Schulmeister (violin); Jakub Čepický (viola); Aleš Kaspřík (cello))
rec. 30-31 May 2015, Martinů Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague, Czech Republic. NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6322 [65.17]
For its new album the Wihan Quartet has kept to music from its Czech homeland focusing on a work each from Dvořák, Suk and Janáček. It is over thirty years since the Wihan was founded in 1985 at the Academy of Performing Arts, Prague. Currently it is Quartet in Residence at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London and coaches at the Royal Academy of Music, London. The booklet notes with this Nimbus Alliance album tell us that violist Jiří Žigmund retired in 2014 (the Wihan website states he is on sabbatical). This release is its first with violist Jakub Čepický, the son of Leoš Čepický.
Dvořák wrote both his final two string quartets the Quartet No. 13, which is performed here, and Quartet No. 14, in 1895 after returning to work at the Prague Conservatory from his time in America. He completed the former in just a few weeks. Overshadowed by the enduring popularity of the Quartet No. 12 American it’s a shame that these two quartets are not played as often as their quality deserves. Fine musicianship from the Wihan is evident and it handles the challenges of the contrasting emotional intensity and meter of the scores adeptly. The fresh and squally character afforded to the opening movement is striking and the Adagio feels as if the composer is evoking the intense pain of parting from a loved one. The Molto vivace's rhythmic energy is impressive whilst remaining stylish and precise. The players demonstrate a firm grip of the contrasting emotions of the Finale. Despite fine playing my primary recommendation for Quartet No. 13 remains the magnificent account by the Emerson Quartet who recorded it in 2008/09 at American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City on Deutsche Grammophon. In addition the praiseworthy account from the Pavel Haas Quartet recorded in 2007 at Prague on Supraphon is worthy of consideration.
Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’ deploys the melody of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia. Written at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 its aim was to help stir the Czech nationalist movement in its desire for independence from the Austrian Empire. The smouldering emotion of this work is contrasted with an introspective aspect which is beautifully shaped by the Wihan. Nevertheless my first preference is the 2010 Champs Hill, West Sussex account from the Sacconi Quartet on Sacconi Records.
The first of Janáček’s pair of string quartets known as the Kreutzer Sonata was inspired by Tolstoy’s dark and disturbing 1889 novella ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’. Here we encounter the emotional and passionate side of love together with some of its heartbreak. When Janáček wrote the quartet in 1923 he was deeply in love with a married woman 38 years his junior. Although his love was never reciprocated, they remained friends. He wrote hundreds of letters to the young woman. In the opening movement the Wihan play with fiery intensity and convey astute control of the contrasting moods of the Con moto. In the third movement Con moto - Vivo - Andante the tone is heavily stamped with turmoil and anxiety. The Finale has a searching quality with episodes of anxiety yet leaves faint glimpses of hope. Despite their splendid playing there is a wealth of excellent recordings with little to choose between them as the standard is so high. There is the stunning account from Lindsay Quartet recorded in 1991 at the University of Cambridge reissued on Regis; Pavel Haas Quartet from 2007 at Prague on Supraphon; Škampa Quartet from 2001 at Prague on Supraphon and Talich Quartet from 2004 at Prague reissued on La Dolce Volta.
Recorded at Martinů Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague the engineering team has provided the Wihan with first rate sound. The booklet contains a helpful essay from Misha Donat. These are satisfying performances from the Wihan but the competition in the Dvořák and Janáček is fierce.