Intellect Outbalances Beauty in Doric String Quartet’s Schubert

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Janáček, and Schubert: Doric String Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 5.4.2016. (BJ)

Haydn: String Quartet in B minor, Op. 64 No. 2, Hob: III:68

Janáček: String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”

Schubert: String Quartet in G major, D. 887

There was enough that was admirable about the Doric String Quartet’s Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert to make me feel guilty for not enjoying it more than I did. Violinists Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, violist Hélène Clèment, and cellist John Myerscough are clearly musicians of the highest technical expertise and of powerful intellectual bent, but their approach was somewhat too cerebral for some of the music on their program.

By far the best performance of the evening was that of Janáček’s First String Quartet, in which they fully captured the composer’s characteristic blend of quirky rhythm with impassioned intensity. In this work, the players moderated the ascetic withholding of traditional vibrato that had characterized their Haydn B-minor Quartet.

In that work, though the group’s emphatically straight tone clarified texture to good effect, I felt that Haydnesque charm and humor were in short supply. Schubert’s greatest string quartet, however, suffered still more from the players’ approach. The outer movements fared best: the intricate structure of the first movement was nicely realized, and in the finale the heavy accent on the B-flat that colors the movement’s home G major was skillfully and convincingly stressed.

But, if charm and humor had been wanting in the Haydn, it was an equally important quality that was missing from the Doric’s account of Schubert’s Andante. I doubt whether anyone hearing the work for the first time in this performance could have guessed what a sublime movement it is. The curious and shifting harmonic angle of the main theme calls up memories of a poetic counterpart in the cold glow of Milton’s “wandering moon, / Riding near her highest noon, / Like one that had been led astray / Through the heav’n’s wide pathless way; / And oft, as if her head she bowed, / Stooping through a fleecy cloud.” But in this performance the cloud totally outbalanced the moon; to put it less figuratively, the aggressive way the violins played their little accompaniment figures made it next to impossible, at least for this listener, to respond to the cello’s song, or even to hear it properly.

I suppose it must be accounted something of an achievement to play such bewitching music in a manner that holds beauty so determinedly at bay, but it is not an achievement I am inclined to value highly. The Dorics are apparently about to record the Schubert quartet, and I would be so presumptuous as to urge them to think very hard about their conception of this movement in particular before doing so.

Bernard Jacobson


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