A Stunning Journey With The Doric String Quartet

CanadaCanada  Haydn, Adès, and Beethoven: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, violins; Hélène Clement, viola; John Myerscough, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, BC, 23.11.2014. (GN)

Haydn: String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2
Adès: The Four Quarters, Op. 28
Beethoven: String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130

On how many occasions has one absolutely loved a concert but, sadly, very few other members of the audience did? Or, alternatively, how many times has one been in a situation in which the audience was wildly ecstatic—but you personally felt that the performance was mediocre?  Both occur probably more than one would care to admit. This appearance by the Doric Quartet was probably the best chamber music concert that I had seen for a good long time, and everyone who attended seemed to feel exactly the same way. The delightful programme of Haydn, Beethoven and Thomas Adès was part of the story, but even more critical was the sensitivity with which the ensemble brought every work to life. There was a sense of genuine discovery, 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—and there’s a recipe to entrance the listener. And to be clear: much of the playing was soft and thoughtful—only a small fraction was particularly virtuosic.

The Quartet was impressive 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 the more focused, intimate setting of Vancouver Playhouse revealed more of the beauty of their sound—a patently British one—remarkably clean, exact and honest—and almost perfectly balanced and flexible in dynamics.

 There are 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 was not the case here. Starting from a whisper, a world of shadows emerged, with the first violin’s yearning attempts at expression and animation always being held back by the second violin and viola’s flowing legato lines. There was much longing and inner probing, much rhetorical stillness, only moving to a more positive demeanour as the very end of the movement approached. In turn, the beautifully-sprung pizzicato that ushered in the Andante gave a lovely feeling of innocence, setting the stage for a deliciously refined journey, though allowing notable contrast. Finally, the rustic vigour of the composer was let out to play in the truculent Minuet and in the finale, the latter full of sly wit and motion at the outset, 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 by the Dorics (and its Canadian premiere). It stands as a ‘small’ masterpiece of line and texture, and very accessible. 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. 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 returning to the rarefied opening at the conclusion of the “Twenty-Fifth Hour.” It is not just coincidence that 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 the letter and spirit of the score, and presented everything with transparency, conviction, and feeling. While avoiding extremes, I have seldom heard each one of these six movements characterized as exactly and, to top it off, the group 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—very fresh and alive. The famous Presto began 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 came the great Cavatina: perhaps not as rarefied as some, but so full of consuming still, pure and deeply felt. The Grosse Fugue, patiently done: rugged power fused to its ongoing flow with impeccable intelligence. In this masterpiece, the quartet left no stone unturned, and their execution was filled with conviction.

Geoffrey Newman

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