The Wihan Quartet at Blackheath

wihanqt.jpgThere’s something about listening to chamber music at 11 o’clock in the morning – the mind is sharper and clearer, you can appreciate the music more, and find yourself picking up hints and connections that you might miss in the bustle of an evening.  (I received my education in the Dvořák string quartets thanks to an unforgettable Chilingirian Quartet cycle of morning concerts at the Cheltenham Festival some years ago.)

So – though groping through the fog of an incipient cold – a brisk walk up the road to Blackheath Concert Halls, to hear the Wihan Quartet in one of the Blackheath Sundays series.

Am I right in thinking there’s a historical connection here?  I believe the quartet takes its name from the great Bohemian cellist Hanuš Wihan, dedicatee of the Dvořák Cello Concerto (and cuckolded by a very young Richard Strauss), and Wihan played at Blackheath Halls a century ago?  The programme was silent on this point – along with other important information such as the names of the four players and the key of the Dvořák Op. 61 Quartet.

Anyway, the Wihan Quartet are local favourites;  the Recital Room was packed out.  The Quartet are four youngish gentlemen from Prague, all cast in the same amiable puppyish mould (no jokes about ‘bouncing Czechs’, please) – their mothers probably think they need haircuts.  All were dressed in black;  they sat with the viola on the outside, which makes for a compact sound with the cello at the heart of the quartet, as it should be.

Their sound tends toward the lean and stringy, though never less than beautiful, and they can do a magical hushed pianissimo;  tuning and ensemble were extraordinarily immaculate (I overheard my neighbour say ‘They breathe as one’, although they did follow their leader’s upbeat sniffs).

They began with the Mozart ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, K 465 – what a tremendous piece.  It’s one of the set of quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and you could feel Mozart striving to show the older master what he could do.  I caught myself wondering whether the famous ‘dissonant’ introduction was a homage to the ‘Chaos’ at the beginning of Haydn’s Creation, with its C minor harmonic dead-ends and non sequiturs;  but of course the Haydn was later, so perhaps the influence went the other way.  It was also interesting to try and track the progress of seeds planted in the introduction as they took root later in the work – the crawling chromatic bass lines, the chugging quavers.  Who knows.  And the lovely octave second subject in the last movement sang out like a ray of sunshine.

Then came Cavatina and Moravian Dance, billed in the advance publicity as by ‘Panufnik’ so I was expecting the very wonderful and underrated Andrzej Panufnik, Polish refugee and denizen of Surrey.  But no, this was by Roxanna, his composing daughter.  She shares many talents with her late father, including an accessible idiom and an ear for colour, the ability to swim effortlessly between simple chords and atonality with no bumps, and a taste for jazzy and bittersweet harmonies (sometimes with chords simultaneously major and minor). 

The Cavatina had lovely lyrical lines, the Dance was a cheerful homage from one East European tradition to another, with bits of Bartók, Kodaly, Klezmer, gypsy music and jazzy fun – one thing after another.  The Wihan Quartet gave the premiere only a few months ago, and they have clearly taken the piece to their hearts.  What a shame la belle Roxanna was not there to take a bow.

Then the Dvořák Quartet Op. 61, in C major as it turned out.  This was the one Dvořák rewrote after ditching his original first movement;  the replacement movement starts with a theme that recalls Handel’s ‘See the Conquering Hero’– I’ve often wondered whether this might be deliberate.  (I see that Alec Robertson, in his Master Musicians volume on Dvořák, spots the resemblance too.)

Ever since my Cheltenham ‘education’ I have adored the Dvořák quartets.  I love their big-heartedness, the broad symphonic canvas, their richness of textural detail and generosity of invention.  Dvořák’s great secret is that he never stands still:  his music is always going somewhere – getting louder or softer, faster or slower, forever moving towards the target of a climax, an ending, or a significant gearchange.  I love the way Dvořák can’t bear to take his leave of the first movement of the C major Quartet, turning his ‘conquering hero’ theme over and over before reluctantly letting it go.

For the first time, I found myself longing for a bigger, warmer sound, although one couldn’t fault the Wihan Quartet for their commitment, energy and characterisation.  They obviously love these works too.  The slow movement was lovely, but lacked a certain breath-holding magic.  The Scherzo was fun, with a very extended duple-time Trio like a folk dance in which one thing followed another, rather like the Panufnik.

Their encore was the slow movement from Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 3 (the one with a jokey bit in the middle that goes ‘Ding dong bell / Pussy’s in the well’).  This was ideally suited to the Wihans’ sound and style of playing – a very good omen for their complete Beethoven cycle at the Halls (six concerts) next May and June.

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picture from http://www.wihanquartet.com/index2 — thanks

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3 Comments on “The Wihan Quartet at Blackheath”

  1. Clover Says:

    Your description makes me wish I had been there. I never learned to play an instrument (My sister was the “musical” one in my family, so she got the piano lessons. I, as you know had the ballet lessons.) However, back when I was in high school, the public schools had enough money to really educate kids, and among our electives was a music appreciation class. Unheard of in today’s American high schools. I enjoyed the class. I also learned more about music, especially jazz, from my musician friends. I’m still sadly lacking in classical music education, though. One time I was a visiting teacher in a music classroom where the teacher giving a lesson about fugues. There was a film he was showing that had different colors showing the way the parts moved along and how it worked. It was fascinating. The film was old and crackling, but this visual aspect was so memorable to me (being a visual learner). I wish I had a copy on DVD, so I could watch it again. I do wish I could listen to a concert with you to help me understand what I was hearing!

  2. jonathanburton Says:

    Dear Clover, how very kind! It would have been lovely to have you there with me, as you could have prodded me awake when I drifted off occasionally…(you may have noticed some movements got less coverage than others!).
    The greatest educator of them all was Leonard Bernstein. If you can get hold of his series of six TV programmes called ‘The Unanswered Question’ (in black and white!) they are the most amazing experience. (Or there’s a book of them with the same title too.) What a great man. He would use things like graphics for explaining fugues too, and all sorts of parallels with literature, linguistics and syntax, psychology and mind games (‘Don’t think of an elephant for five seconds!’).
    I enjoy blogging about concerts, as I can say whatever occurs to me. Normally in my work I am constrained by having to write very condensed texts – either for surtitles or for programme notes – so it’s a release just being able to ramble on… Nice when someone appreciates what I write! Thanks xx

  3. mona lisa Says:

    i read this, trying to get inspiration for descriptive words as i struggle to write a ‘pseudo critique’ of my choir’s performance of the Messiah. We’re sorely lacking for any musical type people who can also write, to do our reviews, so it’s me, who’s taken on the job of writing a little something for the rag we call a newspaper.

    Jonathan, this sounds magical, and beautiful. I wish i knew how to turn my feelings about music into words. I always end up sounding like an idiot. Actually, i wish you had been there, so you could have written something as thoughtful and evocative about our performance. You are wonderful. I would have loved to hear your ramblings about the orchestra, the soloists, the choir, and our conductor. you would have caught the feeling, i know it.


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