The Wihan Quartet, led by Leoš Čepickỷ, belongs to a distinguished line of Czech quartets, including the Talich and the Prazac, whose members are entirely Czech. Their tradition was perfectly illustrated by tonight’s encore, the finale of Dvořák’s American Quartet, in which an uninhibited joyfulness was achieved by fine discipline and a determination to avoid everything mechanical. Vivacity and discipline also characterised Haydn’s Quartet Op.54, No.1, driven throughout by the intelligent and communicative playing of their cellist, Michal Kaňka. The third movement, with its five-bar phrases and dancing Trio section, felt authentically Bohemian.
Beethoven’s last quartet, Op.135 in F major, was played in the more international later-20th style, with highly dramatised gestures at the start of the Finale and a very slow Lento Assai, as if it were notated in 3/4 or 3/2 rather than 6/8. But the Bohemian lilt was never far away, as in the opening dialogues of the first movement, or the closing variation of the Lento Assai, where the cellist’s subtly swaying rhythms created the perfect ground for the first violin’s beautifully caressed arabesques.
After the interval came Tchaikovsky’s huge 3rd Quartet, music that makes very different demands on its players: no bright, jolly rhythms here but a brooding intensity that requires concentrated, sustained tone and the power to give purpose to very long phrases – and in the dark key of E flat minor. A strong Slavic sympathy for this music was everywhere apparent, and at the technical level these musicians showed just how to sustain long phrases, to shape movements over periods of fifteen minutes and more, and especially how to sustain their audience’s attention, for there was never a dull moment. Overall this was a fine and memorable performance. Let’s hope the Wihan Quartet can visit us again, perhaps with some Janáček?
Professor Peter Johnson
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire