It must be something in the plum juice that produces, generation after generation, a cluster of distinctive string quartets from the country constituted as the Czech Republic. There is nothing like a Czech string quartet. It’s a generic school of ensemble playing that aligns all the right accents to a witty, virile expressiveness and an almost effortless panache.
Count the present contenders on the world stage: the Panocha, the Pavel Haas, the Pražák, the Stamic, the Vlach, the Wihan, and the daddy of them all, the Talich. There are presently seven or eight Czech quartets of the highest quality out there. No other nation of ten million can match that.
The Wihan Quartet—their name belongs to the cellist of the 1891 Bohemian Quartet: Josef Suk, Oskar Nedbal, Hanuš Wihan, Karel Hoffman—are as authentic as it gets. Their sound is close to what Antonin Dvořák must have heard when he composed quartets for his son-in-law’s group, as well as his elegiac cello concerto for Hanuš Wihan.
Skip to the Adagio of Dvořák s 1895 G-major quartet, written on his return from three years in America, and you will hear exactly what I mean. The gorgeous central theme, drawn from a folk tune, sacrifices nothing of its earthiness while metamorphosing into exquisite art. These parallel lines of grit and beauty are integral to Czech sound, delivered with a seal of organic farming and at Allegro driving speeds that would be illegal in most other countries.
The first Janáček quartet, titled Kreutzer Sonata and premiered by the Bohemians in 1924, is a meditation on marital breakdown. The Wihans paper over the human cracks by playing up the bucolic night noises that Janáček employs to mitigate misery with a sense of mortal insignificance. Theirs is a step beyond the conventional psychoanalytical interpretation and it works pretty well. In the track between two major string quartets, the Wihans dash off Suk’s delicious variations on the St. Wenceslas Chorale.
Czech it out.