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Wihan Quartet - Blackheath Halls 21 November 2004

Suk - Meditation on the old Bohemian Chorale St. Wenceslas, Op.35a
Mozart - Quartet in D minor, K421
Beethoven - Quartet, Op.132

The Wihan Quartet from Prague is currently sharing their vast experience with students and music lovers in Greenwich as String Quartet in Residence at Trinity College of Music. (Hanuš Wihan, a close friend of Dvørák's, founded the Bohemian Quartet.)

Recently I wrote that the Emperors, prize winners at the 1994 London International String Quartet Competition, were unwise to start with Mozart, a composer who exposes the slightest weakness mercilessly - especially on a Sunday morning! With the Wihans, the 1991 winners, the problem was an opposite one.

Suk's Meditation was good to hear again, and displayed the immaculate ensemble and blend of tone this quartet can now boast. The sound was rich and loud, making me wonder how large are the halls in which they accustomed to play? Mozart's K 421 (the same one given by the Emperors at Blackheath) was played with limited dynamic range, but with such efficiency and accuracy that they might have been making a digital recording which would have required no patching. Whatever the reason, it failed to move or excite us. Since the over-exposure to Mozart in his bicentenary year, I have found it wise to limit listening to his music; over-familiarity can dull receptivity - so maybe the fault was ours?

Beethoven's Op 132, with the 20 min molto adagio, never fails to make its effect; on this occasion I found myself absorbed by the complexity of cross rhythms and his way of negating the bar line so that you are contentedly at sea for a time before the world rights itself. Again, the Wihans were breathtakingly accurate and secure. But their very excellence has its problems, brought to mind by hearing the very different Avivs from Israel shortly before.

People used to see these late Beethoven quartets as Everests of the repertoire, to be approached but never fully mastered; the Griller Quartet (leaders when I was young) worked together for twenty years before they felt themselves ready to tackle them! And in the middle of the 20th C there was usually a feeling of striving for the (nearly) unattainable, which players and audiences shared at live performances. Now they sound, to people like me, too easy.... Is there still a place for 'strain' and perceived difficulty as an intrinsic element of the live music experience - as it is in sport? Or has the growth of technology made perfection the desirable aim in more and more aspects of life?

I must go back to my Busch Quartet recordings and see whether one can recover the feeling they brought when originally released on 78s.



© Peter Grahame Woolf