Schubert String Quartets: No.13 in A minor 'Rosamunde' and No.14 in D minor 'Death and the Maiden'
The Wihan Quartet, formed in 1985, are heirs to the great Czech musical tradition. The Quartet’s outstanding reputation for the interpretation of its native Czech heritage and of the many classical, romantic and modern masterpieces of the string quartet repertoire is widely acknowledged.
"Schubert remains one of the most elusive of pre-Romantic composers, not least in his mature string quartets. Emphasise the Classicist side of his nature and you risk underplaying the music’s expressive poignancy, but opt for a furrowed-brow, Beethovenian thrust and you lose the profound sense of vulnerability that lies at the core of his creative psyche. By skilfully steering an interpretative middle course, the Wihan Quartet achieves the tantalising expressive ambivalence that is the nirvana of all Schubert interpretation. In the undulating textures of the ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet we find intense sadness without self-pity, beauty without beautification, and a compelling dramatic narrative free from melodrama. Towards the end of the opening movement’s development section, Schubert’s musical shafts of terror are experienced as a psychological assault. Turn to the famous opening of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ and we encounter an exquisitely subtle world of semantic suggestibility that is deeply unsettling, while the lyrical second subject exchanges Viennese coffee-house nostalgia for lungfuls of bracing Dvořákian fresh air. This fine Czech ensemble even sidesteps the finale’s rhythmic moto perpetuo bear-trap by keeping the music dancing on its collective toes. The live recording, made in a Prague convent during the summer of 2011, boasts first-rate, atmospheric sound and an audience so quiet you could hear a pin drop." Julian Haylock, The Strad
An International Record Review Oustanding Recording
“Recorded in a concert given in Prague’s Convent of St Agnes in 2011, these are two of the finest accounts of this music that I have ever encountered….”
Very ‘live’ chamber-playing from the Wihan Quartet – a group who really listen to each other – brings intimacy and concentration (and a slightly ‘period’ feel) to two late Schubert string quartets, works more often treated to a Romantic interpretation. Mike Ashman’s Critic’s Choice 2012, Gramophone Magazine
Recorded in a concert given in Prague¹s Convent of St Agnes in 2011, these are two of the finest accounts of this music that I have ever encountered: virtuosic, eminently stylish and exceptionally sensitive to the blend of haunting lyricism and sweeping intensity that stamps the music. Most striking in the Wihan Quartet¹s playing is its rhythmic flexibility. Never rigid, it makes the subtlest modifications in pulse seem natural and utterly free of mannerisms or affectation. From the very opening of ‘Death and the Maiden¹, one¹s attention becomes riveted, in part because of the Wihan¹s care in observing the staccato indications of the music¹s triplets and the full duration of its indicated silences. Throughout the movement, contrasts between grim eruptions and soaring lyricism are sharply drawn.
The second movement (a set of six variations based on the composer¹s song ‘Death and the Maiden¹) is stunning in the Wihan¹s projection of its contrasting moods, particularly the 27- bar coda, where the main theme returns in a grand arch of soft-loud-soft dynamics. If the Presto tarantella of the finale is not played quite so quickly as some other groups have done, it loses none of its demonic character in this recording. Indeed, it gains a clarity that in some faster accounts is sometimes smudged. Quartet No. 13 may lack some of the miracles of No. 14, but it is nonetheless a major masterpiece and gains another superb performance in this release.
The Wihans do not take Schubert¹s indication of Allegro ma non troppo for the first movement too literally, favouring a fairly fast tempo that avoids even a hint of sentimentality. With the second and fourth movements, the group pays refreshingly close attention to Schubert¹s tempo indications, recognizing in the former that what Schubert tagged Andante implies OEwalking¹ and should not be played as an adagio. Similarly, in the finale the Wihans demonstrate that an Allegretto should not be rushed, projecting the music with a relaxed grace that seems pointedly apt.
Throughout both performances the sound is first-rate, a bit dry in acoustic but with each instrument clearly focused and well balanced. The audience is heard only at the end of each work, where eruptions of applause occur. Perhaps it was hypnotized by these exceptionally commanding performances. All exposition repeats are observed in what is certainly an outstanding release.
- Mortimer H. Frank