A STUNNING JOURNEY WITH THE DORIC STRING QUARTET
Doric String Quartet; Works by Haydn, Adès, and Beethoven, Playhouse, November 23, 2014.
On how many occasions has one absolutely loved a concert but, sadly, very few other members of the audience also did? Or, alternatively, found oneself in a situation where the audience was wildly ecstatic but you personally felt that the performance was mediocre? Probably more than one would care to admit! I thought that this appearance by the Doric Quartet was probably the best chamber music concert that I had seen for a good long time, and I am absolutely thrilled that everyone who attended seemed to feel exactly the same way. Part of this was the delightful programme of Haydn, Beethoven and Thomas Adès on offer but even more critical was the sensitivity with which the ensemble brought every work to life. There was a sense of genuine discovery throughout and the quartet communicated readily just how great they thought this music was. Combine this with exquisite voicing and articulation and a cunning knowledge of how to use contrasts in dynamics and emotional tone to penetrate the innermost workings of the music -- and one certainly has a recipe to entrance the listener. And let me make it clear: much of the playing was soft and probing, only a small fraction was particularly virtuosic.
We were very impressed with the Doric Quartet on last year’s visit when they gave a revealing account of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, but that concert took place in the somewhat spacious Chan Centre that is not free from acoustical dispersion. Seeing them in a more focused, intimate setting this time revealed just how beautiful their sound is. It is a patently British sound, remarkably clean, exact and honest, but almost perfectly balanced and flexible in dynamics.
There exist relatively few opening movements in the set of Haydn’s Op. 76 quartets that allow for fully buoyant drive and passion, but Op. 76, No. 2 is definitely one of them. Except that we didn’t get that here. Starting from a whisper, we were immediately taken into a world of shadows, the first violin’s yearning attempts at expression and animation always being held back by the second violin and viola’s long legato line that sought lyricism and flow instead. There was much longing and inner probing, much rhetorical still, only moving to a more positive demeanour as we approached the very end of the movement. The beautifully-sprung pizzicato that ushered in the Andante in turn gave a lovely feeling of innocence, setting the stage for a journey that was deliciously refined, though allowing notable contrast. Then, finally, the rustic vigour of the composer was let out to play, given full reign in the truculent Minuet and in the finale, the latter full of sly wit and motion to begin with and unbridled virtuosity at the end. It was an absolute jewel of a performance, and also one that gave some respect to period practice. I noticed how exposed timbres were often delivered without vibrato, and that some of the structural lessons that the Quatuor Mosaiques left us decades ago were not forgotten.
Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters (2011) was a Carnegie Hall commission intended for the Emerson Quartet, but I certainly found it compelling in the likely more restrained, less luxuriant treatment of the Dorics. On this hearing, I would really think it stands as a ‘small’ masterpiece of line and texture, and very accessible it is too. Perhaps one might say “it has not one note too many”, yet every note is telling. The seeming allusions to Benjamin Britten in the last two movements only add to the intrigue. This performance was the work's Canadian premiere. The Doric Quartet gave a wonderfully distilled, accurate and concentrated reading of these four short movements, capturing the suspension and wonder of Night Falls, the pizzicato energy of refracted sunlight popping up from morning dew in Serenade, the inexorable building of richer heat in Days, before taking us all the way back to the rarefied opening at the conclusion of the Twenty-Fifth Hour. It is not a matter of coincidence than this final movement is written in 25/16 time.
The Doric’s performance of Beethoven’s demanding Op. 130 was also thoroughly successful because it followed completely the letter and spirit of the score, and presented everything so transparently, with conviction and feeling. While avoiding interpretative extremes, I have seldom heard each one of these six movements characterized as exactly and, to top it off, we finished with the composer’s original ending, the Grosse Fugue.
The slow opening started well, voices nicely differentiated, giving way to an Allegro notable for its crispness and balance. There was the right feeling of inner depth and no excess of romantic sentiment, everything negotiated by control of tonal weight and contrast. I found this very fresh and alive. The famous presto was as light as a feather, beginning from what seemed to be only small wisps of sound. Nonchalance and coy charm figured tellingly in the two lovely following movements, yet the distinction between them was made absolutely clear. And then the great Cavatina: perhaps not as rarefied as some, but so full of consuming still, pure and deeply felt. The Grosse Fugue then took us home in a very patient way, fusing its rugged power with its ongoing flow with impeccable intelligence. I really think that the Doric Quartet left no stone unturned in this masterpiece, and they executed it with so much conviction.
Simply put, this concert featured superlative artistry and I only hope it is not long before we get a flood of new recordings from the Doric Quartet. And we can hardly wait for their return.
© Geoffrey Newman 2014