A sophisticated and subtle performance

Wihan Quartet

A sophisticated and subtle performance

…The Wihan Quartet seemed to enjoy the freedom of Wolf’s episodic structure, capturing the Serenade’s light-hearted, often ironic, spirit.  The opening was feathery and refined – lots of air between bow and string – yet there was an underlying ebullience and confidence, conveyed by the bright clarity of leader Leoš Čepický’s perky E string and lifted by the firm buoyancy of Michal Kaňka’s cello line.  The movement between the various repetitions, quasi-recitative episodes, and instrumental dialogues was smoothly negotiated, a lovely suppleness characterising the frequent changes of colour, harmony and ambience.

“The textures were transparent allowing the detail to be heard and maintaining the mercurial mood, and there were moments of shadow, too, to complement the piquant playfulness.  If the four players at times looked rather stern, they were clearly having fun!  This was a sophisticated and subtle performance.”

It was also a fitting prelude to the kaleidoscopic timbres and colours, and the rhythmic flightiness, of Ravel’s String Quartet in F, in which the Wihan’s performance – as good performances should and do – gave great pleasure while challenging my expectations and making me think.  The Allegro moderato, très doux felt fairly brisk at the start, pushing forward, the warmth of the string voices given a charge of energy by the slight air of volatility that swept through the swelling and ebbing phrases.  There were not so much accents in the inner voices as tugs and sways which eased into the more relaxed second subject, which was genteel and spacious – the Čepický brothers’ perfectly tuned unison melody singing freely above Jan Schulmeister’s quiet oscillations and Kaňka’s gently brushed but assuring pizzicatos…

“the coherence of the close of the movement was very persuasive, the homophony deepening texturally, the unwinding of the pulse expertly crafted, the mood quietly contemplative.”

Then, when the blind seemed to have been gently drawn down, the lower strings’ rising pizzicatos tenderly encouraged the first violin melody to turn upwards, and the slightest, comforting, chink of light was permitted in.

…I was persuaded by the way, after the subdued shadows of the slower, muted episode, the Wihan held back the accelerando, keeping the pizzicatos on a tight leash, which made the eventual resumption of the dance even more joyful and free.  There were some lovely lyrical exchanges in the Très lent, especially between Jakub Čepický and Kaňka, and the pulsing chords which gently nudge the former’s opening solo were beautifully tender and dreamy.  Again, the Wihan turned the metrical and structural corners skilfully, bringing diverse and contradictory forces into a compellingly coherent whole.  The final phrase tapered exquisitely into the ether: the nightfall was absolute… The stirring growl of the opening of the Vif et agité – the heels of the players’ bows digging in tensely – was a fitting musical riposte, though the overall approach to the movement was more easeful than urgent…

“the Wihan did capture the essential classical elegance of Ravel’s score, and a winning sense of peace and happiness intensified through the final exuberantly rich roar.”

Finally, we had our dessert of Dvořák.  And, if the String Quartet in E-flat Op.51 isn’t a light pudding then it’s also not an overly heavy dose of stodgy, hyperbolic high drama either.

The Wihan’s performance was characterful but never overly sentimental or stickily sumptuousness: rhythm and taut ensemble were primary here – as was immediately evident in the sweet swaying and rocking of the first bars of the Allegro ma non troppo, 

“the phrasing pleasingly fluidwith nuanced injection of rhythmic bite from time to time, but nothing that was not gracious and patrician… the tunefulness, warmth and genuine sense of contentment was satisfying.”

The variety of the Dumka-Andante alternations in the second movement was similarly absorbing.  Kaňka strummed his ‘guitar’ with panache, while Čepický’s melody was soulful but never sagged under the weight of its own sentiment, and occasionally took flight with Bohemian bravura.  The dialogue between the upper and lower voices in the Romanza was sweetly blended, and the whole movement had a calm, polished eloquence.  Then, in the Finale: Allegro assai the breezy virtuosity took flight: Kaňka’s grin before the first note sounded was a sign that mischief was in store.  The staccatos danced with delightful insouciance, and the conversational exchanges brimmed with brio.

“Only the greatest technical mastery can make such togetherness sound so effortless.”

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