Superlative Schubertiade from Doric Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert: Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)], Great Hall, Dartington. 7.3.2014 (PRB)

Doric String Quartet - credit The Arts at Dartington
Doric String Quartet – credit The Arts at Dartington

String Quartet in D minor, D 810 (‘Death and the Maiden’)
String Quartet in G major, D 887

All good things must come to an end, they say, and, as far as Dartington’s Schubertiade goes, good doesn’t get much better.

Introduced by Richard Povall, Interim Director of The Arts at Dartington, the ‘honour’ of concluding this four-part series, given in association with London’s Wigmore Hall, fell to the Doric String Quartet. Indeed they had something of an unenviable task ahead, given the quality of the three concerts that had gone before, respectively investigating the composer’s late piano sonatas, piano trios, Winterreise song-cycle.

Winning first prize at the 2008 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition, second prize at Italy’s Premio Paolo Borciani International String Quartet Competition, and the Ensemble Prize at the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany, the Doric Quartet certainly appeared to have the necessary credentials for the task. Furthermore, their first CD was released to great critical acclaim in 2009, eliciting such positive comments as ‘(their) Haydn sparkles with wit’.

But with no disrespect intended, these two Schubert Quartets, with their symphonic writing, and quasi-orchestral textures, surely make greater demands not simply on the players’ stamina, but also on their intellectual capacity to sustain the composer’s intimate and often convoluted argument, and which all might favour an ensemble of greater maturity and life experience.

However, as the lights dimmed in the glorious setting of the Great Hall, Dartington, within just a few bars the exquisite sound quickly confirmed that this was to be a quite superlative performance, and the perfect finish to an outstanding ongoing musical feast of Schubert’s late oeuvres.From the terse opening of the Death and the Maiden Quartet, this was playing of the very highest order. Leader Alex Redington set the benchmark in terms of dynamic control, from his hushed pianissimos to quite blood-curdling fortissimos, and all matched implicitly by his co-players.

The Andante – a set of eponymous variations on the composer’s song Der Tod und das Mädchen – produced some quite magical moments, from the virtuoso violin-playing in the first variation, to the forceful cello intrusion during the fifth. The syncopations in the ensuing Scherzo were always tautly handled, as was the ghostly unison start of the final tarantella, lightly, yet so deftly pointed with the greatest precision, and which rushed headlong, building towards its ‘prestissimo’ conclusion. Technical mastery was faultless, and despite the challenging physical demands made by this work and its even-longer successor in G major, both performances were simply unyielding, advancing seamlessly from one mood to another, such a significant feature of these two last quartets.

In the latter, with its symphonic opening, the constant juxtaposition of major and minor, and textural layering, it was hard at times to concede that the glorious sounds heard – albeit benefitting from the outstanding acoustic – were still being produced by just four players. As the work unfolded, this became increasingly more noticeable, too, particularly in the Andante un poco moto, and especially in its turbulent episodes.

If the last movement of the G major quartet might seem something of a reworking of the finale of the preceding work, without the more morbid overtones, in the former the ‘buffo’ element reinforces the work’s ultimately, more cheerful disposition. Death and the Maiden was, in reality, Schubert’s testament to death, a distinction finely observed by the players in their investigation of both quartets.  The equally-superb support from the two inner-voices, violist Hélène Clément and Jonathan Stone (violin), complemented by the often nicely- prominent cello-playing from John Myerscough, also contributed to this wonderful evening, which was both the last word on a tremendous series, and the final utterances from a composer nearing the end of his troubled life, all neatly signed, sealed, and despatched.

Philip R Buttall