United Kingdom Britten: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington & Ying Xue [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 22.11.2019. (CS)
String Quartet No.1 in D Op.25
String Quartet No.2 in C Op.36
String Quartet No.3 Op. 94
On what would have been Benjamín Britten’s 106th birthday, the Doric Quartet presented a courageous programme at Wigmore Hall comprising all three of Britten’s string quartets. This offered an opportunity to hear works which represent some of Britten’s early experimentations with form, texture and harmony alongside his final musical word, the last quartet being separated by more than thirty years from the first two.
The Doric Quartet released a disc of Britten’s Quartets earlier this year, on the Chandos label, a recording which followed their residency at Aldeburgh’s ‘Britten Weekend’ in October 2018 where the composer’s chamber music had been the focus. Those performances and subsequent recording found Jonathan Stone in the second violinist’s chair; on this occasion, the performer was Ying Xue who joined the Doric Quartet in 2018. The change of personnel has evidently been a smooth one, for this performance was notable for the sense of familiarity and understanding that it communicated, complemented by a respect for the quartets’ sometimes strangely ‘distant’ quality.
What was also striking was the convincing manner in which the Doric Quartet found a way to shape the textural, temporal and registral contrasts – often quite extreme, and within and between movements – into cohesive forms. The First Quartet (1941) presents considerable challenges in this regard, with its movements of imbalanced length – the second and fourth movements seeming almost brief ‘codas’ to the preceding statements – and contrasting moods.
This performance did not lack for variety and vividness of colour. The slow introduction immediately presented startling timbral contrast: between the cool, ethereal gleam of the upper strings’ stratospheric chord, almost inaudible, and the cello’s lute-like pizzicato which began quite drily and gradually acquired warmth and resonance. Somehow, the Doric made this strange sound-world seem ‘natural’, inevitable. They created a quasi-Beethovian intensity which found release in the rigorous Allegro vivo that burst forth, intermittently interrupting the Sostenuto with a vernacular vigour. The Allegro con slancia seemed almost operatic, by turns jovial then violent, as individual instruments offered exuberant outbursts then united in challenging unison episodes. But, the Andante calmo retreated once more into rapt reflection: the Doric balanced lyrical eloquence, the phrases beautifully tapered, with an improvisatory quality which again reminded me of Beethoven’s expansive, elaborate, ever-exploring slow movements. The stillness of the final chords was dramatically broken by the energy and playfulness of the brief Molto vivace and, following some feisty tussles, particularly between the viola and cello, the movement closed in a blaze of optimism.
The experimentation with colour and contrast continued in the Second Quartet, which was premiered at Wigmore Hall on 21st November 1945, in a performance which commemorated the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. Again, stillness battled with dynamism. A carefully considered use of vibrato imbued the sustained passages with a certain glassiness at times, while the dance-like episodes drove forward, bristling, sometimes gruff. The Vivace was quite brittle, the mood agitated: the individual voices were cleanly delineated and sometimes seemed to be quarrelling as they debated and danced through the rhythmic repetitions. On their Chandos recording, the Doric precede the Second Quartet with Purcell’s 5 Fantasies for 4 voices, a fitting prelude given that Britten’s concluding Chacony is an overt homage to the composer whom Britten described, in a programme note for the 1945 premiere, as ‘the last important international figure of English music’, lamenting the neglect Purcell suffered in his native land, for he is the antithesis of the music which has been popular for so long in this country’. The Doric’s command of the long, slowly unwinding form was consummate, and was complemented by an insightful appreciation of the innate accentuation of the rhythmic patterns and melodic phrases. As the repeating fourth intervals articulated a musical ‘search’ whose drama gradually intensified, the movement seemed to me to foreshadow the instrumental variations which form the obsessive ‘turns of the screw’ in Britten’s later opera. Through the colour and vibrancy of the massive chords and expansive sonorities which increasing accumulate, the Doric Quartet truly conveyed the music’s majesty.
Britten did not return to the string quartet form again until the end of his life. Composition of the Third Quartet was begun in 1975, in Suffolk, and continued during a visit to Venice which the elderly and by now frail composer undertook at the end of that year. The quartet is tied, motivically and in its general mood, to Britten’s valedictory opera, Death in Venice (1973), and this performance was made more poignant by my having heard Mark Padmore in the title role of Gustav von Aschenbach in David McVicar’s new production of the opera at the Royal Opera House the previous evening.
What struck me most was how much similarity there is between this musical ‘farewell’ and the quartets written at the start of Britten’s career. There is, of course, evidence of stylistic development and the distillation of individual voice and style; but, there is the same leanness of texture, timbral and temporal contrasts, an inventive engagement with classical form through the unevenness of the movement length.
Stark shifts between moods characterised the opening Duets, with the second violin and viola forming an undulating central conversation around which the outer strings floated and elaborated, by turns serene then intrusive. After a racing Ostinato, in the third movement, Solo, the steel-firm precision of Alex Redington’s shining violin solo was made more concentrated and profound by Myerscough’s focused vibrato-less cello line, and while the high trills, harmonics and glissandi of the central section were dream-like, the overall mood was one of dignified melancholy. After a vivacious Burlesque, the final Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima) returned us to quiet contemplation. The Doric Quartet shaped the long movement with discernment, the cello ground walking with a sombre tread but always moving forwards, encouraging by the countermelodies of the upper voices which obsessively but sensitively reiterated and revised the three notes of Aschenbach’s “I love you” motif, until ultimately the revolutions and re-visitations fragmented and faded into silence.
This was a very satisfying recital by the Doric Quartet. But, in a sense, the evening belonged to Britten. And, the fact that Hélène Clément plays Britten’s own viola, an instrument made by Francesco Giussani in 1843 and which had previously belonged to Britten’s own teacher Frank Bridge seemed to make the composer’s ‘voice’ speak even more clearly and with lyric pathos.