Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Wihan Quartet @ Wigmore Hall, London

17 December 2006

Sunday mornings on London’s Wigmore Street are usually a quiet affair. The constant flow of traffic subsides, the population of passers-by dwindles, and the sounds of general hustle and bustle are reduced as the area lies in wait for the start of a new week. 
Pop your head inside the local concert venue, however, and you’ll find an intense buzz of excited anticipation. Alongside its regular line-up of evening performances, the Wigmore Hall houses a number of daytime recital series that always have much to offer. The “Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts”, all held at 11.30am, are one of these concert series, allowing the audience to witness approximately one hour of chamber or solo instrumental music from world-class musicians at a very reasonable 10 per ticket.

The most recent instalment in this set of concerts witnessed two arresting performances by the renowned Wihan Quartet. Given the Czech background of all four members of the ensemble, as well as the man after which it was named (the Bohemian cellist Hanus Wihan, a close friend of Dvořák’s and the dedicatee of the famous B-minor ‘Cello Concerto Op. 104), it was no surprise to see the programme dominated by a work from “back home”. In this particular instance it was Dvořák’s String Quartet in A-flat major Op. 105, the composer’s final piece of “absolute” instrumental music (the G-major Quartet Op. 106 was, in fact, written before Op. 105).

Though on the very cusp of his switch to programme music and his return opera, Dvořák was able to produce an instrumental work “conventional” both in form and medium of remarkable freshness and vitality, two characteristics that were brilliantly conveyed by the Wihan Quartet in this rendition. This was a thrilling rollercoaster ride that journeyed through many and disparate sentiments, from the tragic yearning of the third-movement Lento e molto cantabile to the heartfelt contentment of the ensuing Allegro ma non tanto. Though it seems unfair to single out any particular players from a group that emitted such a rich and unified timbre during the course of the entire performance, the iridescent tone of lead violinist Leoš Čepický was a continual source of pleasure, particularly in the soaring melodies of the second-movement scherzo.

The ensemble’s own biography speaks of a “spellbinding sound” and, on this occasion at least, this was an entirely apt description. As is increasingly popular in both chamber and orchestral settings, cellist Aleš Kaspřík was sat between the second violin and the viola. Much debate surrounds this practice (the alternative being for the ‘cello and viola to exchange places), its acoustic and its “correctness”. Though it is not a personal favourite of mine, the Wihan Quartet certainly put forward a convincing argument through their music. Violist Jiří Žigmund, who stands to lose the most from this setting because his sound production naturally travels away from the auditorium, was a joy to watch, constantly turning to the audience as if he were handing his glorious phrases to those in attendance.

The concert had begun with an intense performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor Op. 95, “Serioso”. Though the first movement occasionally lacked a sense of direction, the overall effect of this account was simply awe-inspiring. The stately Allegretto ma non troppo, deftly moulded by the composer, was treated by the Wihan Quartet like a fine and delicate tapestry as the players delivered the intricately woven themes with loving sensitivity. The aura created by this performance was so entrancing that the subsequent Allegro assai vivace, ma serioso came as a real jolt to the system. Both this and the last movement were played with great verve as the quartet displayed simultaneously their musicianship and their virtuosity. The sense of restlessness created in Allegretto agitato of the finale was of the “edge-of-your-seat” variety. Indeed, on more than one occasion it appeared as if second violinist Jan Schulmeister was on the verge of leaping out of his chair, such was the excitement of the performance.

After the music-making had come to a close, all patrons were invited to have coffee or sherry (included with one’s ticket) in the foyer or the Bechstein Room, thus ensuring that the warm, welcoming ambience in the concert hall did not end with the final clap of applause. It is this particularly congenial, civilised atmosphere of the Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts that serves both as a perfect end to the previous week, and an idyllic way to embark on the forthcoming seven days.

buy Wihan Quartet MP3s or CDs
Spotify Wihan Quartet on Spotify

More on Wihan Quartet
Wihan Quartet @ Wigmore Hall, London