Classical: Efficient but uninspired

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The Independent Culture
FOR EIGHT years Simon Majaro, one of the Wigmore Hall's doughty band of Friends, has spent one day a week in the Cambridge workshop of Juliet Barker and Kit Beament making instruments.

As an instrument-maker Majaro is, strictly speaking, an amateur, yet on Thursday he provided the Wihan Quartet with all their instruments - copies he'd made, two of them based on Stradivarius models.

If I had been told they were originals, I'm sure I should have been none the wiser. They sounded very good indeed, and their blend was perfect. Sometimes, particularly in Dvork's "American" Quartet, the players' balance was a little too democratic, so that in the slow movement, accompanying voices were louder than they need have been.

The Wihan takes its name from the dedicatee of Dvork's Cello Concerto and came together in Prague in 1985, winning the London International String Quartet Competition in 1991. They began Mozart's "Dissonance" Quartet promisingly, with great seriousness and intensity. But once they had launched the main allegro, their approach turned out to be rather heavy-handed and stiff.

Overall, they gave a well-drilled, but rather dull performance, lacking charm or delight in details.

That also went for the Dvork, surprising though it may seem, and its dancing, alfresco airiness was altogether suppressed in the depressive atmosphere of a sultry London evening. The best thing was the third of Beethoven's "Razumovsky" Quartets, delivered with concentration and pretty good intonation.

The viola-player - completing the semi-circle opposite the first violin, where more usually the cellist sits - was splendidly assertive at appropriate moments, turning to the audience as much as to say: "Listen to this!"

But the Wihan Quartet's second concert on Saturday didn't do much to alter the impression that, while they are technically strong players, they don't fully illuminate musical character.

They began with Mozart's neo-Baroque Adagio and Fugue in C minor - they were stolid and uninspired in the slow introduction, vigorously efficient in the fugue. Then came another Dvork quartet, this time the E flat major one ending with an irresistible skocna - a traditional dance which, in this case, incongruously recalls Rossini, of all composers.

Alas, the sparkle seemed to have vanished here, nor was there much atmosphere in the preceding romanza.

And while I'm complaining, why do these players have to tinker unnecessarily with their tuning between movements? It's a bad sign - nothing to do with intonation, but rather with an attitude to presenting a performance. It indicates a certain slackness.

And this is different from relaxation, though there was a lot of bonhomie among the players when they joined up with the Vellinger Quartet for Mendelssohn's Octet. Mendelssohn, the programme note reminded us, wanted this played in a symphonic orchestral style, with dynamics more strongly contrasted than was usual in chamber music - though perhaps chamber players were more subdued, or intimate, in Mendelssohn's day.

We certainly got a vigorous performance: positively macho in fact, which didn't exactly match Mendelssohn's aristocratic grace. And whatever happened to the enchantment of that famous scherzo?