United Kingdom Haydn: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.9.2017. (CS)
String Quartet in E flat major Op.20 No.1
String Quartet in C major Op.20 No.2
String Quartet in G minor Op.20 No.3
Appropriately, the Doric Quartet opened the Wigmore Hall’s new Haydn String Quartet Series with the first three of the composer’s Op.20 set, described by Paul Griffith (in The String Quartet: A History) as ‘the real dawning of the string quartet’ – a set aptly nicknamed, because the title page of the second edition incorporated a sun motif, as the ‘Sun’ quartets.
The six quartets might be said to be characterised by drama, depth and democracy: and these qualities vivified the Doric’s performance. When I saw the Quartet perform at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2015 – where they played quartets from Haydn’s Op.76 set, alongside works by Schubert and Adès – I was impressed by their somewhat paradoxical combination of tight ensemble and distinctive individual voices. The same was true of this performance at the Wigmore Hall, in which Haydn’s vigorous counterpoint was highlighted by the dynamic dialogue between the individual players.
Leader Alex Redington plays with deceptive nonchalance and understatement, but his tone rings sweetly and true; Jonathan Stone is a sober presence in the second fiddle’s chair, his precise articulation and thoughtfully controlled phrasing added security and strength to the middle voices. Viola player Hélène Clément delights in the expressive details of her part, her warm tone pushing richly through the texture; John Myerscough’s cello line is full of character and grace, eagerly taking the lead as the music requires, singing vibrantly. Charles Rosen’s suggestion (in The Classical Style) that Classical counterpoint was never characterised, like the Baroque (ideally at least), by an equality of voices but by the continual and insistent transference of melodising and accompanying roles was never more compellingly realised.
When we think of Haydn, the words ‘wit’ and ‘humour’ often come readily to mind; but, the Doric’s interpretations of these Op.20 quartets were of a prevailingly ‘serious’ tone, probing into the darker corners and shadows. They seemed almost restlessly – though obviously the preparation was meticulous – to explore all possible different sonorities and textures: one can almost imagine the experimenting Papa Haydn listening in and remarking, ‘Well, I didn’t know you could play it like that!’ But, this striving for variety, the seeking out of the unusual, was never mannered – though not all the colours in their palette will be to everyone’s taste. Vibrato was sparingly employed. Sometimes the music sounded like Bach, reverential and austere, elsewhere like Webern, raw and intense – not that the two are mutually exclusive. Then, extremes gave way to a surging lyricism, often introduced by cellist John Myerscough’s blithe bursts of song as the cello ascended to assume the highest melodic line.
And, if there is what Griffiths terms ‘continuity of development’ within Haydn’s exploration of the potential scope of the sonata form in these Op.20 quartets, then through the Doric’s performance of the first three of the set there was a similar sense of progression and growth, as they built from the transparency and restraint of the E flat quartet, through the momentousness of the C major, to the greater expansiveness of the G minor quartet which followed the interval and which was enriched by fuller vibrato and more spacious phrasing.
Fresh ideas abounded. The Trio of the E flat’s Menuet was surprisingly introspective, while the even quavers of the following Affetuoso e sostenuto modulated from quite grainy, to tender and then to ‘glassy’, anchored by the secure bass line. Redlington’s chromatic nuances pushed to the fore and were not ‘softened’ with vibrato. In the concluding Presto, bow strokes rose high from the string, with exuberance and insouciance, sharp accents adding further snappiness.
Dynamic extremes enhanced the quasi-Romantic drama of the C major quartet. The Moderato began airily, but if Redlington and Myerscough traded a tender opening theme between them, Clément’s unexpected repeated down bows injected a disruptive dynamism which anticipated the vigour of the development section. The minor key Adagio was rhythmically tense, pushing towards instability and resonant with a Beethovenian profundity, while the concluding Fuga a 4 Soggetti was crisp and clear, the delicate pianissimo sustained with discipline.
With the arrival of the G minor quartet, there was a new sense of freedom but though the colours were deeper, the rising first violin line was often feathery and light in the Allegro con spirito. In the Menuet Myerscough enjoyed emphasising the contrast between the cello’s different roles, the rumbling bass acceding to a floating melodism. The third movement, Poco adagio, was a highlight of the recital, the still calm of the opening drawing in the listeners, preparing them for the cello’s beguiling, probing repetitions. There was to be no relaxation at the close: the Finale, Allegro di molto was tense and ebbed into mystery.
The Doric Quartet released a recording of the Op.20 quartets on the Chandos label in 2015. On the evidence of this performance, I’m off to buy to copy: I’m convinced that I will hear something new with each listening.