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Beethoven String Quartets
Op.18 No.1 in F; Op.14 No.1 in E; Op.59 No.1 in F.

Wihan Quartet Beethoven Cycle - Concert 1 -
Blackheath Halls, London 15 May 2008

We have followed this famous Czech string quartet since they won the London International Competition in 1981. They have maintained the same personnel all that time and developed a reliable rapport and unanimity in their performances. I have described them as hard to write about, because their style and technique are impeccable, but Blackheath Halls (where they have often played and conducted master classes) seems to suit them particularly well.

This was an outstanding recital, which augurs well for the complete cycle which they are repeating here, soon after completing the first ever to have been given in Prague*; maybe it was first for Blackheath too? A felicitous novelty was the inclusion of Beethoven's own arrangement of one of his earlier piano sonatas. Two quartets in F were the pillars of the recital; the earlier one reminding us that Beethoven was far from a novice when he composed his Op. 18 set. No.1 was in fact the last to reach its definitive form; after a period of immersion in quartets of the period (Clementi, Reicha, Boccherini etc) one was reminded afresh of the strength of these works which have established themselves firmly in the repertoire.

The performance of the first of the expansive Razumovsky Quartets, Opus 59 was inspired and gripping from beginning to end. The sound from the back of the Recital Room, with all the curtains around the windows closed, was ideal, and good reason to make the journey to Blackheath for the rest of the cycle (c.15 minutes by rail from Charing X or London Bridge). The ony reservation was that the temperature built up, which must have been trying for the players and testing for their instruments, which needed some retuning between movements.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The remainder of the Blackheath Halls series: 17 & 18 May & 5, 7, 8 June; Thursdays, Saturdays at 7.30pm; Sundays at 11am

*If you can't get to the whole series, there was an affordable and recommendable boxed set of all the Beethoven quartets, including the "extras" - a fully competitive set at a fair price if you want another intégrale. [Lotos LT 0148-2 10 Cds - NLA Dec 2009]

The Wihans Prague Beethoven cycle is shortly to be released on the Wihan's own label - meanwhile visit www.wihanquartet.com, where they can be seen playing and teaching on a short UTube film by Anthony Ede. PGW

Wihan Quartet Beethoven Cycle - Concert 1-6
Blackheath Halls, London 15, 17 & 18 May & 5, 7 & 8 June 2008

Addendum- - a few comments from one of the many people who took the entire journey through the cycle with the remarkable Czech Quartet.

The first and most obvious thing to say is that the performances focused our minds on this glorious music and one left the Recital Room on Sunday afternoon, stunned, exhausted and with a true sense that our lives had been profoundly enriched. The Wihan quartet are difficult to write about because, as has been said on this site before, although their style and technique are impeccable, they are unflamboyant and self-effacing and they seem to exist solely to serve the music. They are a true ensemble, four musicians seamlessly evolving into one voice.

On a more prosaic level they also displayed tremendous physical and mental stamina; the players frequently finished looking extremely drained.

One final word concerning the venue. Blackheath Halls is one of the least "corporate" of the major venues in London. The only sponsor of the cycle appeared to be the estimable Cavatina Chamber Music Trust and there was no sign of corporate branding, private drinks for clients or late starts due to late arriving bankers or bond dealers!

Consequently the audience was composed solely of those who were there to listen and to concentrate, to breathe in the music and to discuss it in the intervals and afterwards - to be a part of this wonderful festival of music.

Mark Dennis


Wihan Quartet - Beethoven String Quartets on DVD

Recorded live October 2007 - March 2008 at the Convent of St. Agnes Prague

String Quartets Op. 18 Nos. 1, 2 & 6
String Quartet in F major, Op. 14, no.1 (after the Piano Sonata)
String Quartet Op. 59 No. 1 'Rasumovsky No. 1
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 'Harp'
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133

Bonus documentary about the Wihan Quartet filmed and edited by Alice Nellis

Nimbus Alliance - NI6107 (DVD Video - 2 discs - c. £16.50)

This for me is a happy consummation of a long lifetime living with these masterworks which shall ever be at the pinnacle of western music.

Evacuated from London to boarding school in the country during the War, I was taken to hear the Menges Quartet in Hitchin; three ladies and cellist Ifor James, who jollied along the audience with introductions to the music (for years afterwards it was still uncommon for musicians to speak from the platform !).

A particularly firm recollection was Op 59/3, with James' sonorous cello pizzicatos in the slow movement, and the quartet as a whole strenuously struggling with the complexites of the finale...

Since then, one collected all the minature scores one by one and latterly heard the quartet cycle given by the Amadeus and others.

In 1991 I was at Goldsmith's Hall for the Wihans triumph in the London International String Quartet Competition. Since then, we have reviewed their recitals often, and a master class in Greenwich, where they hold a residency at Trinity College of Music.

Also, many of their recordings of varied repertoire in which they have maintained the high standards they have set for themselves, those including rarities by such as Pfitzner, Schoenberg and Wolf.

The Wihans' first Beethoven intégrale was a conveniently packaged 10 CDs box on the Czech label Lotus: "Op 14/1 through to the last quartets + several preludes and fugues - a fully competitive set at a fair price if you want another, with a few rare extras" [Musical Pointers]. It is "no longer available"...

A second complete Beethoven cycle was recorded in Prague 2007/2008 and first put on sale at a Blackheath cycle concerts [L, above]. That too has since been repackaged definitively and released by Nimbus Alliance in three jewel-cased boxed sets [L, below]; we rated them as "fully competitive with all the studio recordings in the catalogue". Extracts can be heard on the Wihan Quartet's new website.

But a well kept secret was that those Prague performances were also filmed and now a generous selection of them is available on DVD.

The Convent of St. Agnes, Prague, can be seen and heard as an ideal venue for the cycle, and the production of the performances by Jaroslav Rybar is superb, both for sound quality and for the tasteful camera work, which is both intimate yet free of gratuitous fussiness and excessive close ups. At home, one feels like a privileged member of the convent audience, and pauses, for example, carry a heightened charge when seen as well as 'heard'.

The quartet's performances are supported by a quite exceptional documentary film, made with uncommon expertise by Alice Nellis and edited with great sensitivity. She provides unique insights into the lives and intimate personal relationships of a great quartet, formed as students in 1985, one which has stayed together so long despite all the pressures and undisguised tensions of such a life. You gradually get to know the four as very different individuals, which resonates whilst watching the concert performances. On its own, I would rate Nellis's film as worth the modest pricing of the whole; you can see a substantial excerpt from it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=OfHqE7jhvrk#t=90.

Most collectors of chamber music will already have good versions of the Beethoven quartets in their collections. For those, and for newer enthusiasts, this DVD is the obvious recommendation. The Wihans Beethoven String Quartets Live is a landmark chamber music production and will certainly be one of our top DVDs of the year.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Photo of the Wihan Quartet 2009; Wolf Marion