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May 23, 2006

Fragments from a Life - The Wihan Quartet perform Smetana's String Quartet no. 2 at the Wigmore Hall

Posted by David Conway

Haydn's, Quartet op. 64 no. 5 , The Lark
Smetana, String Quartet no. 2, in D minor
Schubert, String Quartet in A minor, D. 804, Rosamunde
Wihan Quartet
Wigmore Hall, London
17th May 2006

David Conway reflects on the quartets of Bedřich Smetana.

When the future Mrs Conway (stranded on these shores by the un-neighbourly behaviour of the Soviet army in 1968) entered my life, it became of course indispensable for me to acquaint myself with the repertoire of music from her far away country. Appropriate recordings were not then widely available, except for the New World Symphony or the overture to The Bartered Bride.

Fortunately, one of the boons to a music-loving student in those days was the availability of cheap LP records from the Czech company Supraphon – at a price, if I recall correctly, of 15 shillings. No matter the occasional crackle, or the acoustic which sometimes gave the impression of a bathroom – the performances and passion were nearly always of world-class quality. Thus I became acquainted with the chamber music of Dvořák and Smetana at a very suitably romantic juncture; and they have remained essential elements of my internal repertoire – the MP3 I have buried somewhere in my brain – ever since.

Admittedly some of Supraphon's more arcane offerings – for example, Alois Hába's string quartets written in quarter- and sixth-tones – did not progress to more than one or two outings on the turntable. But one work which electrified me then, and still does today, is Smetana's first string quartet, which he subtitled From my life. This astounding work is true to its title, and is I think the first complete autobiography to be attempted through music alone. Of course there had been pieces with implicit or explicit autobiographical content – notably, amongst the former, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and, amongst the latter, Beethoven's last quartet, with its question and answer "Must it be?" – "It must be!"

Twentieth century conventional wisdom on string quartets held that this supposedly most intimate of forms (but why more intimate than solos or duets?) was somehow by its nature autobiographical in intent; as the innumerable Haydn quartets entered the repertoire this would have meant that either his notably uneventful life concealed undocumented adventures, or else that he was setting his laundry lists. But now that we are released from the notion that every piece of quartet music must tell a "story", Smetana's first quartet, and its poignant successor, excellent as are their musical qualities, remain the more potent for the tale underlying them.

From My Life, written in 1876, is no rarity in modern quartet recitals. Three lyrical and dramatic movements graphically convey the composer's progress, his youthful optimism (with the viola being given the unusual instruction to sound "like a posthorn" as he goes on his travels), and his falling in love. In the last movement comes the moment which reaches the tragical intensity that he always strove for, but never quite achieved, in his now neglected nationalist operas, which he thought of as his most significant work. The last movement is in full flood – everything is literally going the composer's way – when suddenly we are stopped short by a brusque cadence and a silence, from which emerges a stratospherically high and sinisterly quiet note on the first violin, accompanied by ghastly tremolos on the other instruments. This is the tinnitus which struck the composer in 1874 as a consequence of his syphilis, leading to the complete deafness of his last years. The back of the movement is broken – as was Smetana's own life – and the music ebbs away into nothingness. Music has no more graphic self-revelation.

Smetana's illness and its symptoms grew progressively worse during the remaining eight years of his life. By the beginning of 1883 his doctor forbade him to work at music. His second string quartet was composed under conditions which make the composer's achievement truly heroic; at most he was able to write only a few bars a day, and his illness often meant that he had little recollection of what he had written previously, so that he had to re-read all his previous work on the quartet to progress. It is this far less familiar work, a marvellous salvage from the wreck of a life, which was programmed by the Wihan Quartet at their Wigmore Hall recital.

Two features of this quartet impress the listener immediately. First, the rhetorical unison introductions to each movement, as if the composer is commanding himself to gather his thoughts and pull himself together to launch into the flow. Second, the episodic structure of the music itself. Musical cells run into and contrast with each other; the traditional forms of musical structure are left behind. Doubtless this is a consequence of the composer's infirmity, but it does not weaken the music's impact, especially when it is played with the dedication exhibited by the Wihan. Rather, it looks forward to the lapidary, almost conversational, technique of a later musical autobiographer, Janácek, and adds to the sense of immediacy and urgent communication.

Full of references to the earlier quartet – even the catastrophic cadence of the latter appears in slight disguise in the first movement of the latter, as if to emphasise the continuity of Smetana's thoughts – the piece is in effect a more concise and urgent rerun of the same issues, shorter on lyricism, darker and more violent. Where it significantly differs is in its end. Smetana wrote at the time to a friend:

to find a real conclusion with chords and cadences is difficult.
Instead of the despair of the first quartet, here we find an attempt at a triumphant final passage which, in the context of the circumstances, is even more despairing. A few months after finishing the quartet, Smetana's behaviour became so violent that he was removed to the asylum where he died in May 1884.

The Wihan Quartet, formed in Czechoslovakia in 1985, proved themselves passionate advocates of a piece known to be difficult to bring off in the concert hall. Their give and take in the many large-scale and smaller scale changes of gear throughout the piece were musically and emotionally just right – especially in the polka-like sections of the second movement. Overall this was by far the most successful item in the concert.

In the Haydn and the Schubert I was frankly disappointed. Something seemed to be missing. My wife's interesting comment (from one who should know) was that "they just weren't Czech enough" – by which I take it that they weren't quite prepared to make sufficient concessions to emotion from attempts to reach the seamless perfection of, say, a group like the Alban Berg Quartet. I also felt – perhaps it was an off-night for him – that the leader, Leoš Čepický, was on occasion not as assertive as he might be. When he entered with the first movement melody of Haydn's Lark quartet it suggested more a bird in a cage than one trilling into the start of a musical journey.

In the Schubert quartet, the second movement, with the Rosamunde theme, was played with intensity, despite an unnerving occasional problem with feedback somewhere in the Hall, which the players managed gamely to ignore. Perhaps this put them off their stroke somewhat for the last two movements, which I enjoyed without feeling engaged.

The feeling that the Wihan had more in them if they would let themselves go a little was curiously confirmed when I listened to their recent recording of both the Smetana quartets (on the Czech Arco label), and compared it with the 1993 recording by the Pražák Quartet and my old Supraphon LP version, made by the eponymous Smetana Quartet in 1962. Here again the Wihan were exemplary considered by themselves. But in contrast to the other two, they seem in every aspect middle of the road, in tempo, mood and initiative. By way of example, take the piercing note that destroys the mood of the last movement of From my Life. For Smetana Quartet, the leader, Jiří Novák, starts the note insidiously, just on the edge of audibility, and grows slightly louder as it is sustained, a sound frightening and mysterious. Vačlav Remeš for the Pražák, starts the note a little louder, but with a definite downbow, maintaining the volume level throughout, a sound which is incisive and threatening. Čepický's note seems to start uncertainly and then diminish slightly before strengthening again – neither here nor there. The Wihan has great capacity but for the present I will, for a change, submit to my wife's musical judgement.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Two syphilitics on the program. I suspect that there's been a general decline in creativity and wit since the conquering (more or less) of the spirachete. But on the balance, it's just as well that your good wife didn't remark that Haydn and Schubert weren't Czech enough :).

Posted by: Peter Green at May 24, 2006 02:03 AM
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