REVIEW: Wihan Quartet ignore the new rules

THEY didn't play the game. The Coffee Concert format is music in the round but the Czech Wihan String Quartet left out the interesting bonus bit.

The custom is that the musicians change seats after each work so the surrounding audience get a different view of them. But they stayed put.

It's not frivolous musical chairs but a gift to the listener of a different camera angle onto the instruments and also the interesting and often engaging personalities playing them. This draws the audience even more magnetically into the performance and enhances the experience and value for money.

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But were the Wihans, line-up unaltered, now in their 20th year together, stuck in their old-dog tricks, dare I wonder? They presented the same faces and backs of heads to an Old Market audience now used to being allowed even more fully into the intimacy of chamber music performance.

It's a format proven in Hove with these Coffee Concerts now in their 10th season and capable of selling the place out.

But it's not that big a deal. Or a major beef with the Wihans. After all, what's the more important? The music or its presentation?

They began with the first of Mozart's six leaping-forward quartets dedicated to Haydn - the one in G K387. It was a reading of grace yet momentum, apparent spontaneity yet control.

But instead of leaving the stage between quartets and creating a natural pause for breath, after two bows to the applause they sat down again and went almost straight into Schubert's A minor Quartet D804.

But a different kind of presentation, note. A sense of continuity and flow from one musical voice in Vienna to another. It had an effect. But did it satisfy?

Does not a chamber music audience '“ or indeed any classical music audience '“ crave a moment or two to digest what they have heard and enjoyed? Then maybe a moment more to prepare for the next work, with a sense of anticipation if they know it? Or, if they don't, to empty their receptive sensory slate, or reach for a fresh one?

After playing the Mozart with the repeats, they may well have disappointed waiting adorers of Schubert's "heavenly length" by omitting his first movement repeat.

I happened to fall into that category, this morning, whether open or not to accusations of indulgence from the Wihans, who opted for the more cerebral and succinct approach - disciplined, even - that asks "Why say again what has been sufficiently been stated already?"

The counter arguments go something like, "Hey, but I liked (or cherished) that so much I wanted (or was desperate) to hear it again" - or, "Thank you, but please, may I be allowed to enjoy deeper insight the second time around?"

Whatever the audience expected or craved, the Wihans were the ones in possession of the artistic prerogative.

And such is the power of Schubert to enrapture with his rich harmony and sense of dreamy exploration of mood that, were the Quartet to be lengthened by that repeat, the Wihans might not have achieved their intended balance within the morning's programme.

To come after the interval was their own countryman Dvork's post-American work, the Quartet in Ab, opus 105. It seemed to amount roughly to the same length as the Schubert and its role and effect was to present a contrasting impetus and outlook to the inescapably introverted Schubert.

Schubert was always going to walk away having left us the more memorable tunes. But Dvork lifted the heart because Schubert, even despite switching for his finale - the work's most energetic movement '“ from his A minor scheme to A major, is temperamentally, maintains his impulse to cloud his new soundscape with the darker shade of an A minor episode he uses twice.

After Schubert's agitated and unquiet opening movement, the Wihans gave us a gentle and ruminative account of his endearing Rosamunde variations.

Leading with Ales Kapric's low-breathing cello, they created a deep and recurrent melancholy in the Menuetto '“ as though the vertically-challenged Schubert could persuade none of the ladies to have the last dance with him.

But in the finale, within the contained moderate tempo Schubert requested, I was lifted by the Wihan's deft and subtle performance of music that made me imagine him playing hide and seek with, this time, a willing female companion, in a large and beautiful, asymmetrically laid-out garden.

Music of painfully brief passing happiness with a sudden moment at which the game seems halted in shock.

By he unsuccessfully trying to steal a kiss? Or, I would prefer to think, by his discovery, on the grass, of a dead song thrush?

I apologise . . . perhaps I love this music just too much.

Next Coffee Concerts: February 22 - Gould Piano Trio with Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn;

March 8 - Eroica Quartet - Mendelssohn and more late Beethoven, Op 132.

Admission prices are 10-20. Box office: 01273 736222.

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