The Doric Quartet’s Superb Beethoven Launches the Wigmore Hall’s New Sunday Coffee Morning Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone, violins; Hélène Clément, viola; John Myerscough, cello). Wigmore Hall, London, 9.9.2018. (CC)

Haydn – String Quartet in G, Op. 33/5 (1781)
Beethoven – String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Op.130 (1825), with Grosse Fuge finale, Op.133

With the final sounds of the Last Night of the Proms still echoing in many people’s ears, the new 2018/19 season ushered itself in with this superb Sunday Morning Coffee Concert at a pristine-clean Wigmore.

The Doric Quartet has been associated with, and rightly lauded for, its Haydn: the sets of Opp. 20, 64 and 76 are already under their belt on Chandos, and the inclusion of one of the Op. 33 set in this concert implies (one hopes) a forthcoming offering on CD. The G major, Op. 33/5 begins with, effectively, a question mark – although at various points in its history it has earned the spurious nickname of “How do you do?” because of this gesture. The Doric’s characteristic freshness in this repertoire was certainly present and correct; enhancing this were a wide dynamic range and beautiful dialogues between players. The second movement, a Largo e cantabile, is an extended aria for first violin; Alex Redington was as eloquent as one might hope. The music itself destabilises the long violin line through its restless, complex accompaniment and harmonic sophistication; in contrast, the galloping Scherzo, with its sudden “stretchings” of time by playing without perception of momentum, acted as the perfect foil while reminding us of the infinite variety of Haydn’s Quartets. The jauntiest of finales, a perfectly judged Allegretto with an eminently witty end, seemed the perfect fare for a Sunday morning.

And so to the meat. And even meatier meat than we were led to believe, for an announcement informed us that Beethoven’s shorter, lighter finale was being replaced by the Grosse Fuge. Quite a taxing concert, then, for any quartet, but one in which the Doric absolutely triumphed: this was one of the finest performances of Op. 130 that I have ever heard. The combination of the freshness of youth with players of undoubted musical maturity was what made the performance special: technically, it was stunning. Care was in evidence from the very opening gesture, beautifully phrased and balanced; the semiquavers of the Allegro were incredibly accurate from all players, each and every time. The depth of the Adagio ma non troppo seemed to penetrate into the Allegro; and when it came to silences, they resonated properly, with no members of the string quartet as “sniffers,” anticipating the subsequent entries. Redington again triumphed in the challenges of the ensuing Presto movement, with no slowing at all for the motoric passages; character likewise suffused the fourth movement Alla danza tedesca. In between was the most glorious Andante con moto ma non troppo, the passing of semiquavers between instruments an absolute delight; a special mention to the beautifully grainy viola solos from Hélène Clément. It was the Cavatina, though, that took the music to the most elevated plains, its concentrated intensity the distillation of late Beethoven. The “geklemmt” passage (a marking that can be translated as “choked”) here emerged as ghostly, a shadow of music that only partially existed on the material plane; and a special mention for the sensitive contributions of second violinist Jonathan Stone in this movement.

Thank goodness for the substitution back to the Grosse Fuge! After that Cavatina, the wrench back into a furious, angry late Beethovenian world seemed only right. (The thought did pass my mind as to whether the shorter finale could have been an encore: in the event none was offered). The rawness, the daring, the sense of exploration of Beethoven’s writing here, way ahead of its time, was presented in raw, bare terms. Contrasts were visceral; if there is one small niggle, perhaps the trills felt a tad tame. In late Beethoven, trills lose their decorative function to become kinetic oscillations of energy; the passage wherein Beethoven showcases this just felt a touch underpowered. That aside, this was rightly exhausting to listen to; one can only imagine how exhausting it was to play.

A simply superb lunchtime concert.

Colin Clarke

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