United Kingdom Haydn, Dennehy, Beethoven: Doric Quartet (Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 15.7.2016 (CS)
Haydn: String Quartet in B minor Op.64 No.2
Donnacha Dennehy: The weather of it (world première)
Beethoven: String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 (‘Razumovsky’)
The last time that I heard the Doric Quartet perform, at the 2015 Aldeburgh Festival (review), their programme sandwiched Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters between a light preface by Haydn and Schubert’s grave, substantial Death and the Maiden Quartet. A pattern is emerging: in this concert at the Wigmore Hall – subtitled Bracing Change: New String Commissions – Haydn’s Op.64 No.2 and Beethoven’s extraordinarily dramatic and expansive String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 (‘Razumovsky’) framed the world première of a new work by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy.
The weather of it was co-commissioned by the Radcliffe Trust, NMC Recordings, Carnegie Hall and the Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Swiss Foundation Hoffmann. Dennehy’s ‘introductory’ note draws attention to the creative and interpretative freedom derived from music’s lack of specificity, suggesting the composer’s affinity with Paterian aesthetics: ‘You can feel something from it, it can excite thoughts, but it doesn’t tell you how to think. In fact, every writer I know always aspires to the wordlessness of music’. A remark by Enda Walsh, the librettist of Dennehy’s 2015 opera The Last Hotel appears to have given rise to the quartet’s title: ‘Tiring of questions about narrative meaning, when we rehearsing … Enda asked instead that people concentrate on the weather of it.’ Dennehy likens the mercurial volatility of the Irish weather, which ‘can shift from heavy to light in an instant’, to the ‘condensing and evaporating’ of musical material.
Intriguing observations which stirred my anticipation. To anyone familiar with the speed and force with which a thunderous hail storm can obscure a clear blue Irish sky, the effect of ‘condensing and evaporating’ will conjure thoughts of scale, drama, compelling cinematic narrative and visceral energy. And the ‘post-minimalist’ repetitions, oscillations and juxtapositions of the opening of The weather of it created a striking dynamism, as taut rhythmic cells and melodic motifs formed varied textures made vibrant through contrast. The Doric Quartet achieved an impressive tightness of ensemble. The timbre was at times quite raw but John Myerscough’s cello formed the lyrical centre around which the busy material wound.
This animated material was enriched further by harmonic refinement as Dennehy toyed with overtone series and equal temperament. A passage of notable delicacy – all wispy fragments and ethereality – foregrounded the meticulous precision of Dennehy’s writing, and of the Doric’s realisation of the musical ideas. Then began a gradual expansion, with individual voices becoming increasingly well-defined and the texture more chordal; the ‘sobbing’ climax was soothed by a clearing of the air, though the violins’ harmonics and glissandi and the quiet pulsing bass line maintained a mood of restlessness.
So far, so good: I was impressed by the inventiveness of the material and the excitement that the Doric generated. But, subsequently, the propulsive energy of the repetitions and patterns began to wane and while the localised conflicts and contrasts were interesting they did not seem to be contributing to a larger, coherent form. It was as if, rather than embodying ‘processes’ – which one might liken to meteorological phenomena – the music was describing or painting them.
Dennehy has remarked in the past, ‘I’m interested in creating these pieces of material and then vandalising them’, but while a raw energy can be derived from intense scrutiny and probing, if you pick away at something for long enough there’s a point where there’s nothing left. Recalling Walter Pater’s familiar maxim, ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’, we should remember that Pater was referring to music’s unique fusion of form and subject. But, whatever the weaknesses of the overall structure of The weather of it, the Doric’s scrupulous attention to detail and their intense distillation of Dennehy’s engaging textures and motifs highlighted the work’s strengths.
In the opening Haydn quartet, the Doric played with characteristic oneness of articulation, style and sentiment. Colour was expertly delineated, phrases shaped with accomplishment and insight. Leader Alex Redington, to whom Haydn gives the lion’s share of the material, exhibited a sweet tone and impressive clarity in the rapid passagework, while Jonathan Stone and Hélène Clément offered strongly individualised inner parts. I found some of the dynamic and timbral contrasts in the Allegro spiritoso a little exaggerated, however; it’s true that there is ambiguity and caution in the opening section of the first movement, which swell into unrest, but I felt that the schism between fraught anxiety and tentative retreat was rather too great, and the sound withdrew at times to a surreal, dry ‘nothingness’. This was a very ‘twenty-first-century’ reading of Haydn!
Similarly, at the start of the Adagio ma no troppo there was no obvious attempt to imbue the tone with warmth despite the B major key signature. Rather the Doric seemed to seek out the unusual and questioning with the second violin’s arpeggio movement injecting turbulence beneath Redington’s serene theme. After a robust, even abrasive, Menuetto, the Allegretto trio was gentle. The Finale: Presto was notable for some gutsy high G-string playing from Redington. After the general intensity of the interpretation, the ending was surprisingly airy and light.
Beethoven’s Op.59 No.2 drew really thrilling chamber-music concentration from the Doric Quartet: an equality of voices, superb intonation and intelligent musicianship. There remained a tendency to seek out pronounced expressive extremes and the playing was by turns incisive then reserved, furious then reticent in the first movement Allegro. But here the material justifies the immoderations: the movement begins with two stormy chords which explode into silence, and the subsequent motivically related subjects explore diverse moods. The Doric tapped into the obsessive vein of Beethoven’s motivic developments and interruptions. Vibrato was not excessively employed, and there was an impressive sense of the broad expanse of the movement. The players powerfully communicated just how revolutionary Beethoven was in conceiving and rendering the vast formal design of these Op.59 quartets – and they achieved a superb balance between technical assuredness and a drama which at times feels barely under control.
After all the emphasis on rhythm and harmony in the opening movement, the melodic beauty of the Molto adagio was striking; all the more so, because the players’ pulses were presumably still pounding from first movement! The E major Allegretto’s theme russe – ‘Slava Bogu ne nebe, Slava!’ – skipped jauntily and lop-sidedly between the players, escalating into a contrapuntal maze of astonishing dissonance. The powerful Finale was a galloping stamped of frantic ‘baton-passing’ of the musical motifs.
What was most striking during this concert was the Doric Quartet’s genuine sense of dedication to the music performed. It was an uplifting way for me to end my 2015-16 Wigmore Hall season.