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Dvořák • Smetana: String Quartets

Wihan Quartet (Nimbus)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Dvořák • Smetana
Dvořák: String Quartet No. 12 in F, ‘American’; Waltzes, Op. 54/1 & 4; Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, ‘From My Life’
Wihan Quartet
Nimbus NI 6422   63:56 mins

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The Wihan Quartet have held their position of eminence among the most distinguished Czech chamber groups for nearly 40 years. This remarkable consistency, in part a result of minimal personnel changes, is also down to the Wihan’s ability to revitalise their interpretative approach. Given their standing, it seems a missed opportunity not to champion less familiar repertoire – a string quartet by the late 19th-century composer Zdeněk Fibich, perhaps – alongside one or other of these dependable warhorses. Nevertheless, these performances of Dvořák and Smetana’s most famous quartets certainly offer something new.

Their performance of the first movement of Smetana’s autobiographical First Quartet is deeply satisfying, making the most of its drama without undermining its clarity of structure. The Polka second movement not only revels in Smetana’s celebration of dance, but in the cello interjections in the opening section provides genuine hilarity. Their reading of the Largo, while not the slowest on record, is one of the most heartfelt available and in the finale the high spirits of the opening are a perfect foil for the almost operatic depiction of the tragedy of sudden and total deafness that destroyed Smetana’s conducting career.

There is also a great deal to enjoy in their performance of Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet not least a thoughtful approach to the first movement which externalises its soulful qualities as much as its carefree exuberance. Throughout, their playing is both thoughtful and impassioned with only one uncharacteristic tuning blemish in the slow movement to disturb matters.

In a crowded field, these excellently recorded performances stand very high.

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Jan Smaczny