The Doric Quartet’s Perplexing yet Fascinating Way with Haydn

03/03/2018

Haydn: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 28.2.2018. (MB)

Haydn – String Quartet in G major, op.64 no.4; String Quartet in D major, op.64 no.5, ‘Lark’; String Quartet in E-flat major, op.64 no.6

I found this a perplexing yet fascinating concert: not the programme, straightforwardly the last three of Haydn’s twelve so-called ‘Tost’ quartets, but the performances. They brought home to me some of the differences between mere taste and judgement. There was much that I – and the friend who accompanied me still more – may not have liked about what was heard here, and that inevitably forms part of our judgement. It clearly should not form more than part of it, though, or criticism truly would be nothing more than consumerism, well or ill ‘informed’. For, by the same token, if often I found the general tone and playing style of the Doric Quartet here strangely inward yet tense, to an extreme that seemed distinctly odd for Haydn, I could not say that it was wrong, nor that many of the players’ other choices did not have justification of their own. I was compelled by these performances to listen, and indeed often to wonder anew at Haydn’s fabled inventiveness, even if many other performances have spoken more touchingly, more personally, even more enjoyably, to me.

There was nothing objectionable, or even odd, to the playing I heard at the opening of the G major Quartet, op.64 no.4: stylish, cultivated, and clearly considered. The general tone may have been somewhat ‘period’, but it proved varied and never dogmatic. When vibrato was entirely withdrawn, it was for a discernible reason. There was, moreover, a strong sense of formal dynamism to the first movement as a whole. Those of Haydn’s figures with a resemblance to Mozart intrigued all the more on account of the decidedly non-Mozartian use to which they were put. There was a degree of relaxation to be heard in the minuet, still more so, indeed markedly so, in its trio. Again, nothing was taken for granted. Likewise in the Adagio, an austere yet serene song of considerable cumulative power, albeit worlds away from the Amadeus Quartet or the sound I hear in my head. It was worlds away too, I think, from, say, the Quatuor Mosaïques; this had a tension and relative astringency very much of its own. I did wonder, though, whether the players here and, still more so in the finale, might have played out a little more at times. The latter movement’s more extrovert moments told, but neither so clearly nor so joyfully as they might.

The ‘Lark’ Quartet, op.65 no.5, followed. I had heard this recently indeed, also at the Wigmore Hall, from the Jerusalem Quartet. That performance had certainly been more to my taste, and also, I think, more musically revealing (perhaps partly on account of taste). This performance, though, again had me listen and think. The first movement began in playful yet febrile fashion, once more deeply considered, and in many ways so it continued, even when less tonally ingratiating. The development section showed us how many ways there are to develop – well, a few of them anyway – even within a single, concise span such as this. And the return was experienced, by me at least, very much as a return. I have heard the music sound closer to Beethoven, not without benefit, but it need not always do so. The slow movement sounded a note of kinship to that in the preceding quartet, yet sang its own song, no one else’s. There was a splendid sense of involvement to the minuet, in particular to its marriage between harmony and counterpoint. However, sometimes the music seemed in danger of losing its pulse, its impetus. Whilst I can understand the temptation to play around, to linger, I am not sure that it ultimately worked to Haydn’s advantage. The finale was, again, curiously restrained, indeed still more so.

That I was taken by surprise by Haydn’s tonal plan in the first movement of the E-flat major Quartet, op.64 no.6, can only be a good thing. Again, I was made to listen, in a performance that perhaps laid greater emphasis upon counterpoint than harmony – but that is never the easiest of balances to ensure. The passion of the central episode to the slow movement was most welcome, indeed riveting. Its surrounding material was certainly contrasted, but was it perhaps a little too cool? Were the contrasts of the trios in the following movement again overdone? Perhaps. Again, much is surely a matter of taste. I certainly liked the boisterous quality to the minuet, though. The finale scampered along nicely, although there were times when I wished it might have been taken off the leash. Such, though, clearly was not the æsthetic of this particular performance, from which I learned much.

Mark Berry

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