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String Quartets and Harp Trios

Wihan Quartet at Blackheath and Ruffer/Webb/Silverthorne at Conway Hall,
November 5 2006

Wihan Quartet
Mozart String Quartet No 16 in E flat, K428
Beethoven String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 95
Ravel String Quartet in F

Two chamber concerts which provoke critical thoughts.

The Wihans, whom we have followed since they won the first prize and audience prize at London's International Competition in 1991, are now at a mature peak, and still with their original membership. They gave faultless performances of three canonic masterworks at Blackheath, which left a critic little to say!

But we will return to them later.

The Conway Hall early evening Chamber Music Series (now under the adventurous artistic direction of Peter Fribbins - whose 2nd quartet will be premiered next Sunday) invited a trio which has a small repertoire for a varied musical entertainment (and a change from the staple chamber music diet); a programme which looked more intriguing on paper than it proved in realisation.

It was interesting to learn that Bax and Debussy composed their trios, the first ever for this combination, simultaneously and without either being aware of the other. Bax produced a single movement which was good to hear once, but was full of the clichés you might expect. Debussy, whose Sonate from his sadly never-completed six, felt his way seemingly improvisatingly, in an elusive work which needs many rehearings, a masterpiece which has become a staple of mixed chamber ensembles which include these three instruments. It was the heart of this concert, and received a sensitive, fully engaging performance.

Nancy Ruffer, her dynamics between quiet and very quiet, phrased Bach's sonata with enormous subtlety. The modern harp proved a cumbersome dominant companion; might it have been possible to damp its resonance somehow? Nor was the situation greatly improved with the alto flute for Takemitsu.

Britten's Lachrymae, on the other hand, persuaded me that the harp (subsituting for piano with the composer's approval) was a wholly viable accompanying instrument for Paul Silverthorne's viola. His was, to my ears, the most commending presence , bringing a wonderful range of colours, his tone peculiarly penetrating even whn pianissimo.

Nancy Ruffer was all too reticent throughout the evening, and there seemed to have been no attempt to check balance before the audience came in? She was not helped by Silverthorne's less than successful arrangements of some Ravel pieces. And Piazzolla's missed the composer's bandoneon, Nancy's costume change not quite enough to bring us the authentic Argentinian flavour.

This harp trio, if it is to prove viable, will have to seek contemporary additions to its repertoire, and Debussy showed us that this is worth doing. Unfortunately a scheduled CPE Bach trio (which might have worked well) did not arrive at Conway Hall, nor a promised new work by the excellent harpist Hugh Webb.

At Blackheath we had a demonstration of how the string quartet, which was perfected by Haydn, has continued to serve the changing needs of several centuries of composers. The Wihans' very excellence gave rise to worrying thoughts. If their recital had been recorded and a CD of it sold to the audience on their way out (perfectly feasible with recent advances of technology) it would have been virtually indistinguishable from a carefully edited studio recording. The downside is the lack of any sense of danger, which used to have us on the edge of our seats for e.g. the ending of Op 95. If they are to keep their freshness for another 20 years, I would hope that they will engage far more with living composers alongside the "canon"; their latest is an arrangment of Beatles tunes by Lubos Krticka, one of which was given as their encore and sounded very like Dvorak! I hope it doesn't mean a capitulation to market forces as seemed to happen with the Kronos Quartet?

It gets harder and harder to choose (or advise) amongst the numerous recordings of the quartet classics. Patterns of buying are changing; I am told that more classical CDs are sold at concerts than from the shops, and the Wihans wisely brought along a selection of theirs; the recent complete Beethoven quartets, Dvorak quartets, Britten & Ravel quartets, Schumann and Dvorak piano quintets etc (the Dvorak will be in their next South Place appearance, Nov 26th).

After special concerts, as good a guide to likely enjoyment as any may be to purchase CDs at the venues; that links home listening with memorable live events.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The Wihans are in the middle of a residency at Trinity College of Music and will be taking a master class with the up-coming Carducci Quartet at Blackheath Halls tomorrow November 7th. See the Wihan Quartet's website, with details of all their CDs. The latest is an arrangment of Beatles tunes by Lubos Krticka, Lotos L T 0102-2-131