United Kingdom Haydn, Schubert, Britten, Adès: Doric Quartet (Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone [violins], Hèléne Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello])
(A) Snape Maltings 26.6.2015 and
(B) Aldeburgh Church 27.6.2015. (CS)
(A) Haydn: String Quartet in D Op.76 No.5
Adès: The Four Quarters
Schubert: String Quartet in D minor D.810 (‘Death and the Maiden’)
(B) Haydn: String Quartet in Eb Op.76 No.6
Britten: String Quartet No.2 Op.36
Schubert: Quartettsatz in D minor D.703
Haydn: String Quartet in G Op.76 No.1
Haydn and Schubert provided a bridge between these two Aldeburgh Festival performances by the Doric Quartet. Works by Britten and Thomas Adès offered a contrast to the musical worlds of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, but meticulous attention to detail and unwavering concentration was characteristic of all of the compositions performed – although it was perhaps in the more intimate venue of the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Aldeburgh that this seriousness of intent made most impact; and, it was during this Saturday morning concert, too, that the players finally allowed themselves to temper the gravity with lightness and wit.
On the evidence of these performances, the strengths of the Doric’s music-making are an abiding lyricism and an approach to phrasing which allows for subtlety and flexibility; co-ordination of attack and articulation, which is particularly impressive in rapid passagework and fleeting staccato episodes; perfectly corresponding colour and bow strokes, which helps to reveal the underlying structure of the music – particularly helpful in less familiar repertoire; and consistently true intonation.
Though they meld into a wonderfully coherent and expressive whole, the players have quite distinctive musical characters. The melodies of leader Alex Redington were relaxed and sweet of tone, and his undemonstrative manner encouraged the quartet to engage in tightly focused, confidential conversations, and to listen intently to one another. Jonathan Stone’s second violin lines provided sensitive support, but Stone used his firmly focussed tone to bring important gestures to the fore, and was a confident presence throughout. Violist Hèléne Clément has a warm and soft-grained tone, which aids the projection of a perfectly blended sound, while John Myerscough’s contribution was impressive and significant: the cellist’s beautifully expressive phrasing was complemented by effortless technical command and Myerscough provided a rock-solid underpinning, the shapely bass lines contributing to the Quartet’s persuasive musicality. Every gesture was fastidiously thought-through, nothing was taken for granted and the wide-ranging expressive moods and textures revealed surprising interpretative nuances.
The Doric performed three of Haydn’s Op.76 quartets, opening their Maltings recital with the fifth of the six quartets in the series. While the experimental nature and diversity of mood of this quartet – which begins with a fairly light-hearted theme and variations before progressing to an extremely developmental Largo: Cantabile e mesto – suited the Doric’s temperament, their tendency to emphasise extremes of dynamic was not always fruitful. The most withdrawn passages sometimes struggled to communicate to the far reaches of the 832-seat concert hall, and the broader sweep of phrases and movements was therefore diminished; moreover, the amplified outbursts which periodically interrupt the improvisatory variations of this first movement seemed excessively adamant. The intonation during the roving second movement was unfailingly sure though, and the unexpected harmonies and sonorities suggested a pensive sadness, established by Redington’s solo melody and subsequently assumed by the other voices as they conversed with the leader’s song. The Trio of the third movement was surprisingly dark, with the cello’s repeated rumbling gestures quite dominant, and the Presto finale was characterised by ceaseless driving energy, sometimes quite feverish but never uncontrolled, although the folk-like ambience of the thematic material was not always evoked.
Haydn also opened the Quartet’s Saturday morning recital, and here the more intimate setting allowed the players to explicate the way that Haydn’s leisurely dialogues gradually unfold into complex textures and ideas in the first movement of Op.76 No.6 in Eb major, and to convey the strangeness of the modulations in the following Fantasia – Adagio. The introspection and delicacy of the latter movement was astonishing, as was the Quartet’s ability to sustain the quietest passages without ever losing tone, despite the minimal use of vibrato. The running scales of the Menuetto: Presto were delivered with a wry humour, and the irregular rhythms of the Finale: Allegro spiritoso were, similarly, drolly perplexing.
There is no doubt that Haydn can be as cerebral as Beethoven, but the composer’s underlying wit and grace truly came through in the Doric’s performance of the first of the Op.76 set. The passing of the fugal theme of the Allegro con spirito – from cello to viola, to the violins supported by the lower voices – was supple and flowing, creating a gentle lyricism which accumulated force and joy as the movement progressed. The strong opening three chords of the movement served as a signal to expect the unexpected, and the subsequent disruptions and dissonances were well-accommodated within the overall form. The slow unfolding of the rich harmonies of the Adagio sostenuto reminded us again of the Doric’s well-blended tone while the ensuing duet for first violin and cello was elegant and eloquent. The romping Menuet swept away the reflective mood, though Redington re-asserted decorum in the Trio, applying just the right amount of rubato to his graceful leaping melody. The intonation was flawless in the unison minor-key passage which opens the final Allegro man non troppo and this rustic-spirited movement was vigorous and, with the modulation to the tonic major, full of joy and light – indeed, I’m sure that the wisp of a smile fleetingly countered the players’ prevailing earnestness.
In the Maltings on Friday evening, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet was subject to the same restless interpretative explorations which characterised the Doric’s approach to Haydn – and new light was cast on familiar material as the players exhibited much power and passion, although again I occasionally found the extreme contrasts of dynamics and the drastic alternations of mood rather unsettling and excessive. But the depth of the players’ reflections was evident in their presentation of the opening bars of the Allegro: they surged through the fortissimo unison first note with striking anger, initiating the volatile dialogues of the exposition, but with the repeat of the exposition there was more evenness of dynamic and tone, so that the momentum which had been established was maintained. The processional theme of the Andante con moto, and its variants, spanned a predictably wide range, from veiled reticent to forthright declamation, from whispered pianissimos to fiery sforzandos. John Myerscough’s cello melodies were captivatingly expressive, the subtle individualities assimilated convincingly within the song-like phrases. And, as the extensive variations unrolled, the Doric successfully maintained momentum and dramatic tension. The tempo was brisk for both the Scherzo and the final Presto, and the quartet generated huge energy; but, the relentless, often very swift, changes of mood and dynamic were quite tiring, even distracting. Moreover, the fortissimo outbursts at times too aggressive for my liking – wild releases of repressed fury – and in the last movement the unruly eruptions sometimes lost their moorings.
The most intriguing work performed in the Maltings Hall programme was also the most challenging for the listener, and Myerscough’s informative, succinct introduction to Thomas Adès’ string quartet, The Four Quarters, was welcome and helpful. And, this was a highly persuasive performance. A suite of contrasting movements which traces the ebb and flow of time across its four movements, the work suited the Doric’s delight in infinite probing into possible colours and textures; it was the individual moments and gestures which grabbed one’s interest, rather than the relationship between them. ‘Nightfall’ opened up yawning vistas between the violins and lower strings, and the edgy accents and displaced rhythms created a sense of strange unease. The explosive pizzicatos of ‘Serenade: Morning Dew’ evoked an awesome deluge of falling droplets. In ‘Days’ Jonathan Stone’s syncopated ostinato was clock-like in its regularity and, as the textures built in density, it formed a firm centre which gradually pulled the other circling voices into its gravity. There was no sense of the extreme demands made by the complexities of the 25/16 time finale, ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’, as the Doric explored the movement’s erasure of earth-bound measure.
For me, the highlight of these two recitals was the Doric’s performance of Britten’s Second String Quartet in C major, another work which suited Doric’s predilection for startling alternations in texture, intensity and string colour, and for on-going developmental exploration. The first movement began calmly, the lyrical theme imbued with gentle yearning, but from these unruffled beginnings evolved, in improvisatory fashion and often underpinned by long-held organ-like pedals, an absorbing drama. Octave doublings were faultlessly tuned; staccato passages were crisp and high-spirited; eerie glissandi were impeccably executed. After the strong-willed pronouncements of the individual voices, the stasis of the opening was consolingly re-established at the end of the movement, confirmed by the cello’s simple pizzicato cadences. The violent nervous energy of the ensuing Vivace brutally shattered this serenity; again, the unison passages were so well-tuned it was as if we heard just a single voice, and the agitated spiccato episodes scuttled apprehensively.
Written at a time that Britten began to serious study the music of Henry Purcell, the Second Quartet was specifically composed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. (It was performed on 21 November 1945 at the Wigmore Hall by the Zorian Quartet.) Purcell’s influence is most evident in the huge Chacony, which the Doric performed with supreme mastery – giving not the merest hint of how technically challenging this music is. The solo cadenzas which punctuate the three sets of variations – the cello’s solo is placed between the first and second groups, the viola is heard between the second and third, while the first violin solo appears after the third – were mesmerizingly fluent and stirring. It was good, too, to hear Hèléne Clément’s viola assuming a more prominent role. Myerscough relished the virtuosic challenges, which he used to expressive advantage; Redington was similarly untroubled by the demanding double stopping. After the solo utterances, Stone’s second violin themes spoke powerfully through the shifting textures, and throughout there was a sense of concordance between the voices, however varied the material, as shared melodies and ornamentations were often placed against contrasting motifs. The repeated C major chords of the climax, heard first over the dotted rhythms of the main theme, were insistent and unrelenting, forming a confident, up-lifting conclusion.
In these two performances, the Doric Quartet showed that they are not afraid to experiment but, because of their masterly technical assurance, there was never any sense of reckless risk-taking, just of a spirit of enquiry and adventure which pushed the instruments to the extremes of their physical and musical potential.