Marc-André Hamelin and the Doric String Quartet explore new repertoire in Vancouver

CanadaCanada Sibelius, Hamelin, Dvořák: Marc-André Hamelin (piano); Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington and Ying Xue (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)], Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 16.2.2020. (GN)

Doric String Quartet © George Garnier

Sibelius – String Quartet in D minor Op.56, ‘Voces Intimae’
Hamelin – Quintet for Piano and Strings (2016)
Dvořák – Piano Quintet in A major Op.81

The fortieth anniversary season of the Vancouver Recital Society has already brought back many esteemed artists who have appeared in the organization’s past. This time, it was Marc-André Hamelin and the Doric String Quartet, who have visited frequently on their own but never together. The Doric’s wonderfully clean tonal blend and transparency have served repertoire from Haydn to Schubert extremely well, and they recently moved forward to composers such as Janáček and Britten. They also added a new second violin, Ying Xue, in 2018. Here they gave a tightly-etched and insightful performance of Sibelius’s ‘Voces Intimae’. Unusually warm and flowing pianism from Hamelin joined with the quartet’s energy in the famous Dvořák Piano Quintet, a performance of contrast and dramatic power though not one that fully realized the composer’s special lyricism. The surprise was Hamelin’s own Piano Quintet, a half-hour piece that resembled a rhapsodie-fantasie more than a conventional tight-knit exercise in this genre.

The transparency of the Doric’s reading of the Sibelius was distinctive. Textures were lean, and the cleanness of the voicings and perception of the composer’s unique (and often symmetric) building blocks yielded a concentrated and integrated result. The ensemble found airiness and sparkle early on, but also hinted at the folk roots that become more explicit in the Allegretto fourth movement. The Adagio was done beautifully, featuring a sensitive interplay between the instruments and a full appreciation of the speaking pianissimos from which the work gets its title. Above all, there was intimacy here, and in the subsequent movement too, which set up the sharper, more robust energy of the finale. In the combination of astringency and feeling, I was at times reminded of the Britten quartets, something I had not previously thought of. I might also note that Ying Xue’s violin runs in the Allegretto left no doubt as to how formidable a player she is, and how much she adds to the ensemble’s overall synergy

The tightness of the Doric’s playing did not suit the Dvořák Piano Quintet as well. The group tended to dichotomize moments of strong energy from the composer’s pensive musings, while not quite finding a lyrical affability and delight in between. Hamelin’s piano underwrote more of the warm coaxing flow that one identifies with the composer, suggesting a slight discrepancy in approach. Playing the work’s introduction very slowly and softly, then moving so tenaciously into the Allegro, did not strike me as ideal. The opening theme should be direct, positive and feeling (not slow and not withdrawn), just like the introduction of the companion Symphony No.8 Op.88. At the same time, articulation should never be acerbic in the passages of vigour and energy: there is still a lyrical roundness of phrase that needs to be implied. Accordingly, the opening Allegro came off as dramatic but lacking a degree of human affection. The best playing was in the Dumka, patient, searching and demonstrably in touch with the composer’s melancholy, with some lovely viola playing from Hélène Clément. Though Hamelin continued to display some degree of breadth and charm, the closing two movements returned the quartet to its more brusque, spiky style. The Scherzo had scintillating attack but did not find full suspension of its phrases. The quick pace of the last movement gave it a more insistent demeanour, but I was disappointed both that the sheer joy of the rhythmic inflections that one identifies in Czech dances was not evident, and that the soft touching moment at the close did not descend on the music as naturally and lovingly as it often does.

The big surprise of the afternoon was Hamelin’s own piano quintet. It was a surprise, evidently, because no one had heard it before, but also because it was so echt-romantic, which seemed to contrast markedly with the pianist’s reputation for forbidding analytical precision. This dichotomy is perhaps not uncommon: Richard Strauss was a wonderfully precise, almost classical conductor, but witness the luxuriance in his music. Hamelin has composed some extremely difficult smaller pieces for piano, but this seems to be one of his first ventures into large scale writing with other instruments.

I admit that I didn’t get many new feelings from this composition. It seemed more of a nostalgic recollection of Gallic romantic/rhapsodic writing at the end of the nineteenth century, augmented by modernist piano innovations and various theatrical gestures. In the opening movement, a large structural and emotional debt was paid to César Franck’s Piano Quintet (1880), a work that introduced a more indulgent type of angst and melancholy than was common at the time, and anticipated some of the vivid post-romantic imagery of Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and others. Saint-Saëns, however, disowned it. Perhaps this fits Hamelin’s acknowledgment (in my interview) that ‘the turn of the twentieth century, where tonal harmony really started to break up, was one of the most fascinating and radically innovative periods in music history’.

While Franck often employed cyclical development, Hamelin was more linear and evolutionary in his approach, creating a feeling of a rhapsodie-fantasie that moves on and on. There are three movements. While one appreciated the efforts to create a new structural model, one controversial feature was how often the piano writing was separated from the quartet; I thought there might be tighter integration both harmonically and rhythmically. Nonetheless, given the rhapsodic passions of the music, I was certainly in the mood to find something individual – even if strange and haunting – in the feelings created. But everything seemed too much in the light of day: Hamelin relied too heavily on a standard tool kit of constructional and dramatic devices (sforzandi, tremolos and the like), and it was difficult to suspend oneself in a special aura. The Passacaglia second movement had potential yet its romanticism seemed slightly generic, and the violent string slashes at the climax were too cinematic for my taste. The finale had a whole section devoted to the string quartet alone (something I have rarely encountered), but its trajectory still seemed laboured. Although it is difficult to judge a 29-minute work on first hearing, my inclination is that the piece needs to be tightened and shortened: first, to make its instrumental density greater and, second, to allow an absolutely crystalline delineation of its message.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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