Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Wihan Quartet live and on CD

Wigmore Hall 17 May 2006

Credit: Nigel Sutton

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in D Op. 64 No. 5 'The Lark'
Bedrich Smetana: String Quartet No. 2 in D minor

Franz Schubert: String Quartet in A minor D. 804 'Rosamunde'


Winners of the first London International String Quartet Competition (which I attended in 1991) the Wihans have stayed together for twenty years now, and maintained a leading international reputation.


They'd tuned their instruments before they came onto the platform, and they maintained exemplary intonation and unanimity of phrasing and rhythm throughout an urbane evening of sophisticated music-making, soon after the roller-coaster tensions of the 2006 London International String Quartet Competition finals in this hall.


All four players were clearly in good health as manifested by technical excellence and there was no sign of anymusical or inter-personal tension within the group. The recital was being recorded (? for Wigmore Hall Live or for the BBC) and no 'patching' would be needed before these accounts of standard repertoire were disseminated. String quartet playing has advanced technically so far that to regain a sense of wonder adventure one needs to go back to the era of the Busch Quartet!


That would leave me little else to say but for the ever-stimulating Misha Donat's programme notes. Whereas Haydn at 59 appears to have been in confident mood and presumably good health, Donat reminded us that at the same age Smetana (whose "other" quartet was featured) was in extremis and struggling against medical advice to complete this his last work, suffering from the late stages of syphilis complications: "- - at times I get confused - lose my memory - cannot remember the principal melody - look on it as if it were the work of a stranger".


Schubert at 39 was in profound depression from the effects of the same illness when composing the 'Rosamunde' quartet, conscious that "health will never be regained - - despair that brightest hopes have come to nothing" etc etc. Smetana expresses regrets with defiance; Schubert with ineffable beauty in "one of the most hauntingly melancholy pieces he ever wrote".


That commentary gave a context to contemplate their so-different masterpieces from the light of our contemporary world, in which the ravages of AIDS had struck so many of the artistic community before treatment became possible.

Heard from that point of view, the Wihans were perhaps just a little low-key in their elegant interpretations of music which came to birth through struggle?



The Wihans have now completed and released recordings of all the Beethoven Quartets in a bargain box. [Lotos LT 0148-2 130 - 10 CDs].

Some of the performances are fine and fully competitive with the many in the catalogue; there is veritably an embarasse de riches in the Beethoven quartet discography. [But, on a direct comparison, I found myself preferring one of the 2006 competitors who didn't even make the London finals to the Wihan Quartet's account of Op 95.]


Perhaps the Wihans need to engage with live composers, if they are to regain a sense of adventure to match their mature excellence in the standard repertoire?


P.S. No reservations about the Wihans' very new studio recording - Oct 2005/Feb 2006 - of the two Smetana Quartets (Arcodiva UP 0086-2131).

It is magnificent and unlikely to have been bettered by any competitors in the catalogue. The close recording in a good ambience (Domovina Studio Prague) has a vivid immediacy which enhances this passionate music. My only doubt was whether the high violin note in No 1, signifying tinnitus and deafness, couldn't have been more scary?


Smetana's chamber music is amazing in its intensity; be sure that your collection includes also the Piano Trio
(q.v. a fine CD by UK's Gould Piano Trio - "The Smetana trio, composed after the death of his young daughter, is of scarifying intensity, a cry of pain which often seems to be bursting the bounds of the trio format."



© Peter Grahame Woolf