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The Students of Prague

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
12/03/2000 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet # 3
Bedrich Smetana: Quartet # 2
Antonin Dvorak: Quartet in F Major

The Wihan Quartet
Leos Capicky and Jan Schulmeister (violins)
Jiry Zigmund (viola)
Ales Kasprik (cello)

For me, the highlight of the Beethoven Festival at Bard College this summer was the discovery of the Wihan Quartet, four young men from Prague who dazzled the afternoon crowds with their renditions of two of the late quartets. I was pleased to learn that the 92nd St. Y had scheduled four youthful string quartets from the Czech Republic this season and that the Wihan would be the first to perform. Theirs is a blended sound far beyond their years, more in the nature of a group which has evolved over a lifetime. This afternoon’s performance of the early Beethoven was notable for its conviviality and a feeling of lightness and verve. The concert was being taped for viewing on public television and so the ushers had the rather small crowd congregate down front to give an illusion of capacity. This manoeuvre did however seem to increase the communal spirit of the event, although it seemed that the depth of performance deserved a little more breadth of audience appreciation overall.

The Smetana is not the famous quartet subtitled “From My Life” but it does carry this appellation as well. It is a product of the very end of his years and is filled with regret, doubt and even bitterness. The Wihan were remarkably able to convey these deep emotions even though they have never had the opportunities to experience them (I noticed this phenomenon during the Bard performances as well). All four are superb players but special praise goes to violist Jiry Zigmund for exceptionally elongated phrasing so important for this late romantic work.

Just the other day I was listening to a performance of the Symphony # 8 and thinking that I have never met anyone who thinks of Dvorak as their favorite composer and yet for sheer joy in listening he is definitely my man. There is a spirit to his mature works which is infectiously optimistic, broadly pantheistic and roundly life-affirming. Playing the music of their countryman, the Wihan captured perfectly the élan vital of the ubiquitous ”American” Quartet, soundly declaring why it is the product of the New World with its corollary promise of hope to the generation of Europeans who flocked here during the time of Dvorak’s journey to Iowa. Particularly affecting was the second movement, phrases enunciated so dearly and repeated so delicately that I was positively shaken. If not for some intonational lapses in movements three and four I would have classified this performance on the level of the Budapest Quartet and that is high praise indeed.

For an encore, the Czechs mounted a ghostly version of variations on (what else?) the 24th caprice of Paganini. Here the left hand pizzicato of Leos Cepicky was duly impressive and the bouncing of the melody in spectral form from one to the other of these fine musicians was a spectator sport much more exciting than any of those popular variants using some sort of ball. These are men of great potential. I hope that they can stay together in this high pressure world of fast bucks and even faster declines. If they are any indication, the entire series of Czech quartets should be a special one indeed for the venerable Y.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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