Three quartets

PHQ in Zagreb

In some sense, the Allegri Quartet have been going for 60 years. But after 30 years, none of the original four were still playing; and now after another 30 years none of those four replacements is still in the quartet … I suppose it is a minor philosophical question, the persistence conditions for string quartets.

But let’s not puzzle about that! The question is: are they still worth listening to? On the evidence of a concert in the chapel of Trinity a couple of nights ago here in Cambridge, very much so. We heard them give a really fine performance of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet, with nuanced feeling and great togetherness from the four players. Compelling playing.

The second piece in the concert was Dvorak’s “American” Quartet, played by the Wihan Quartet (a new name to me: they are a long-established Czech string quartet currently in residence at the Trinity College of Music, London). This was performed with marked intensity and evident love for the piece, though (we agreed) sometimes there was a very slight sense of rush, particularly in the haunting Lento. The Wihan Quartet CD performance of the Dvorak — available to stream via Apple Music as I discovered afterwards — is extremely good, and the tempi there are a little more spacious. But their live performance was still rather fine.

After the interval, the two quartets combined to play the Mendelssohn Octet, with  verve and much evident enjoyment (and to the huge enjoyment of the audience). A terrific evening.

It is strange, though, that magical alchemy that makes the difference between rather good quartet performances, as these were, and truly great ones. After sampling the Wihan Quartet’s CD performance of the “American” Quartet I listened again to the Pavel Haas Quartet’s CD (which was the overall Recording of the Year for the Gramophone in 2011, and the top recommendation of BBC Radio 3’s “Building a Library”). The playing is just extraordinary in so many ways.  Difficult to listen to entirely dry-eyed.

The same goes for the PHQ’s latest CD, of the Smetana quartets. Again the Gramophone reviewer rightly reached for the superlatives. The second quartet is not so immediately appealing, and I’d never really appreciated it till we heard the PHQ play it at the Wigmore Hall: this recording however is again totally compelling. But it is their performance of the first quartet that I’ve been listening to time and again since it was released three months ago.  Extraordinarily affecting.

But don’t take my word (or the Gramophone‘s) for it: PHQ’s Dvorak and Smetana discs, like their other Supraphon recordings, are all available to stream on Apple Music. Do listen!

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