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The Doric String Quartet

30 September 2017

Pillars of This Classical Genre

The Doric String Quartet

The Richmond Concert Society at St. Mary’s Church, Twickenham, 26th September

Review by William Ormerod

The Doric Quartet is a British ensemble (now with one French member) which has won multiple awards both for recordings and in performance competitions.  Regulars at the Wigmore Hall, and widely-travelled across Europe and the U.S.A, they were in 2015 appointed by the Royal Academy of Music as their Teaching Quartet in Association.  The opportunity afforded to local residents by the Richmond Concert Society in their 56th Season to hear them live was eagerly awaited by me, and they did not disappoint – in fact they greatly exceeded my already high expectations.

In the fluid, changing world of chamber music, the Doric Quartet has remarkably stood firm for two decades – next year is their 20th anniversary; though they have had their fair share of personnel changes:  two founder members remain, the leader, Alex Redington, and the ’cellist, John Myerscough.  Jonathan Stone is the second second-violinist they have had, and Hélène Clément their fourth violist.  Yet they gelled together so well that they might have been playing together all their lives.  They also looked smartly turned-out, in shiny black shoes – apart from Hélène, who wore sparkling gold shoes, matching her golden hair!

Doric 2

The programme consisted of three quartets by – in order of performance – Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Thomas Adès (b.1971) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828).  Each was given a short, informative and entertaining spoken introduction by John, the ’cellist.   They began with Haydn’s Quartet in D (Hob.III:34), No.  4 of his six ‘Sun’ quartets Op.20, so nicknamed,  not because of the music itself, but because in an early (unauthorised) edition “the title page carried an emblem of a midday sun.” Perhaps this was intended by the publisher, J.J.  Hummel, to symbolise the dawning of a new era with these illuminating and ground-breaking quartets.  Haydn wrote them in 1772, at the height of his Sturm und Drang period, apparently suffering from loneliness and his wife Anna’s infidelity.  He used to compose in his garden shed at Esterháza, doubtless to get out from under Frau Haydn’s feet!

Movement I : Allegro di molto.  This began, as our ’cellist compère John put it, “in an extraordinary, expansive way,” and immediately the skill of the performers became apparent.  The intonation, togetherness and balance were impeccable; their sense of phrasing, attention to detail and a subtleness of rubato was as one.  Their style of performance was extrovert: there was no wanton showmanship, but the leader was not ashamed to breathe audibly, and they clearly enjoyed their playing, as if dancing in their seats.  I particularly approved of the ’cellist’s flexible seating posture – with feet sometimes tucked underneath (rather than planted foursquare for stability, as taught by generations of great ’cello masters).

Haydn here developed a ‘dot-dot-dot-dash’ rhythm, reminiscent of the Morse code ‘V’ motif opening his pupil Beethoven’s 5th symphony.  This morphed, with a lot of variety in figuration, dynamics, expression and mood (alternating calm repose, mystery, and agitation)  into a ‘diddley-diddley-diddley-um’ rhythm.  I was struck both by the players’ well-controlled energy in fast, loud and rhythmic passages, and especially by their very sensitive rendering of piano passages.  After a beautifully controlled crescendo punctuated by sensitive sforzando’s, and some soloistic passages for viola and ’cello for Haydn to show off those players’ virtuoso technique, the movement tailed off untraditionally into a graceful ‘V-motif’ ending.

II : Un poco adagio affettuoso,  with just the right amount of adagio.   Affettuoso means not exactly with affection, nor with affectation, but with feeling, and this the performers gave it in spades.  This was a theme with four variations, the first violin playing the tune in the theme (with a cheeky but graceful portamento or two), the second half of which was a passage of Mozartian beauty and intensity.  The second violin took up the first variation, duetting with the viola, occasionally decorating with the slightest of grace notes, in addition to Haydn’s trills.  The ’cello was very much the soloist in variation II, though not overpowering the other instruments, again with decorative trills.  Variation III brought back the first violin, over a simple accompaniment, making all the more heartfelt the ‘Mozart’ theme, with sensitive variation of the tempo.  Variation IV was a reprise of the theme, dramatically sotto voce; daring modulations led to a unison ‘call to attention’ heralding a vigorous coda, with a mini-cadenza on the first violin before again fading away to nothing.

III : Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese (in ‘Gypsy style’) – more a scherzo-and-trio than a minuet-and-trio, prefiguring Haydn’s Op.  33 quartets.  An extraordinary, syncopated romp at a fast and furious tempo with a virtuoso solo ’cello, at times with a ‘musette’ (bagpipe-drone) accompaniment.  The ensemble kept immaculately together while the rhythms went all over the place, as Haydn intended.

IV : Presto scherzando – an energetic finale, written in the ‘Hungarian’ or ‘Gypsy’ minor scale: Haydn playing with rhythmic motifs as in the first movement, and plenty of special effects: trills, fanfares, staccato first violin over legato lower strings, a brief affettuoso minor-key section, a slightly strident unison call to attention, before the music took off again like a runaway train (or perhaps a coach-and-horses in Haydn’s day) towards a dramatic and unexpected close.  The players certainly showed what an emotional ride Haydn can take you on.

Doric Carneigne

The English pianist, conductor and prolific composer Thomas Adès has three operas and a dozen orchestral works under his belt.  We heard his second string quartet, Op.28, entitled The Four Quarters, dating from 2010, which John Myerscough told us is one of the group’s most cherished contemporary works to play.   He explained that the piece traces the passing of a day, in four movements: 1. Nightfall; 2. Serenade: Morning dew; 3. Days; 4. The twenty-fifth hour.   This was clearly programme music.  At the start, the sun has set, and we discern, in high staccato harmonics on the violins, stars shining – over sustained “ominous growling chords” on the viola and ’cello – “an atmosphere of quite a lot of suppression.” I sensed a feeling of angst pervading the whole piece.  After forte dissonance and beautiful piano playing, a controlled crescendo dissolved into silence broken by scintillating stars again.  These blurred into gentle downward glissando’s (a passage of shooting stars before daybreak?) as morning approached in a mysterious dissonant fade-out.

In the un-serenade-like second movement frenetic, sometimes quite jazzy pizzicato represented the refraction of sunlight on frosty or dewy grass.  Perhaps a tribute to the Allegretto pizzicato in Bartók’s String Quartet No.  4?  Arco flourishes were passed round the players (gusts of wind?) before the pizzicato playing came together in a jig-like rhythm before a final flash of discord.   The third ’quarter’ (afternoon?) apparently stretched into days – representing the passage of time, to the accompaniment of an ostinato ‘tick-tick-tock’ (U in Morse code) and ‘tick-tock’ (A) repeated on a low C# on the second violin, taken up by the whole quartet in an off-beat 3/4 time like a distorted Mazurka; the composer seemed to be playing an unsettled and unsettling waiting game.  We heard mysterious harmonics on the ’cello near the movement’s end, and the three lower strings had the last morendo chord after the first violin had died (metaphorically), as if representing the fading of time into eternity.

The fourth quarter, ‘The twenty-fifth hour’, John explained, was related to the human body clock (incidentally the subject for which the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 2017 was announced on 2 October): specifically, the theory that for humans it “is programmed for more than 24 hours.” (Research has suggested that the period of the circadian rhythm in humans is on average about 24hr.  12 min.).  The movement had a symbolic 25/16 time signature, and according to the programme note, referred to a feeling of ‘time beyond….’.   We heard more harmonics from the violins, and gentle pizzicato in the viola and ’cello, with extraordinary technique, especially from the leader, yet made to seem effortless.  This was the most traditionally harmonic of the four movements, having a pastoral feel – with passing hints of Vaughan Williams – and did I detect evening birdsong (nightingales?) in the first violin? The angst subsided to a peaceful conclusion, with, I fancy, an added second in the final, repeated D-major chord – or was this just another mysterious harmonic overtone?

After the interval came Schubert’s monumental last string quartet –  No.  15 in G, D.887.   From the opening ‘dot-dash’ (Morse ‘A’) of the first movement, Allegro molto moderato, we encountered drama tempered with sensitivity from the players.  Indeed Hélène almost threw away her bow with enthusiasm near the start, very professionally recovering with grace and aplomb, before a gentle and gracious ’cello solo took over –  then handed on to the viola.  The movement – indeed the whole piece – was characterised by solos or duets on various instruments, with sensitive accompaniment from the others, Schubert following Haydn’s (and Mozart’s) example in giving the ’cello in particular plenty of limelight.  Schubert’s relentless beat was less susceptible to rubato, though the group carefully observed his tempo changes.  The movement was full of rhythmic, harmonic and structural experimentation – notably the oscillation (continued throughout the work) between major and minor keys, the energetic drama interspersed with mysterious pauses, a beautiful Romanze tune on the first violin in the major key and a lyrical ‘lullaby’ section towards the end, when the buzzing bee of the ’cello chased us into the coda – itself a long-drawn out Beethovenian cadence.

As with the Haydn quartet, I was struck by the richness and variety of the tone colours, and not just because of the generous acoustics of the church – not too dry, nor too reverberant.  The viola was impressively strong in its important notes within block chords near the end of the Schubert.  The performers evidently play on instruments of high quality – two antique Italian ones: a 1708 Carlo Tononi [the elder? – “il Bolognese”] first violin and an 1830’s Gagliano brothers [Rafaele & Antonio] ’cello; and two marvellous 21st-century German creations: a violin by Haat-Hedlef Uilderks (2005) and viola by Stefan Becker (2008).  Despite the instruments’ time-span of 300 years, so well-balanced were they in tone quality, whether playing together or separately, that I could not have distinguished between ancient and modern.

The second movement, Andante un poco moto, with just the right amount of moto, was characterised by deceptively jaunty rhythms with an underlying feeling of sorrow and resentment, starting with a ’cello dance over ‘musette’ drones in the other strings, and moving to an exaggeratedly strident tone, deliberately contrived, before the end, suggesting not just grief, but anger.  Schubert must already have known, when writing the quartet in 1826, that he was dying from his long-term degenerative illness – probably syphilis – and here one can sense him railing against his fate.   Nevertheless, a jaunty ‘Oh, well – heigh, ho’ attitude returns, the theme passed around the instruments before being taken up in unison and fading into the distance with a gentle ‘falling asleep’ codetta.

The Scherzo (in minor key), the programme notes told us, was a tarantella; with a lightness of touch reminiscent of Mendelssohn, but with a depth of emotion all Schubert’s own.  Mendelssohn could not have known this piece when he wrote his famous scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a very similar rhythm (‘diddle-iddle-iddle-dum-dum-dum’), though he might have met one or two scherzo’s from Schubert’s published piano sonatas.  The contrasting Trio section (in the major) was a gentle pastoral tune started by the ’cello over an Alberti ‘bass’ – a sweet dream brought gently back to reality by the return of the frenetic scherzo.

The deceptively light-hearted opening of the final Allegro assai took us on a roller-coaster ride of folk-dance cross-rhythms (a trick picked up from Beethoven?) and confused and conflicting emotions alternating as the music switched rapidly between major and minor keys.  The first violin’s virtuoso filigree arpeggio’s were made to seem effortless.  This breathless dance (actually another tarantella) was relieved by short-lived breathers in the minor key – Schubert calling a halt to reassess the position and gather the troops before they all skipped off again into the distance – reminiscent of the Haydn finale heard earlier; before the final recapitulation of the opening theme led to an unexpected, resigned but firm, simple perfect cadence.

I was struck by the common themes and feelings of the three quartets in this imaginative programme – an all-pervading angst, punctuated with flashes of despair and ecstasy, and tempered with resignation and calm repose.   The performers extracted the maximum from these pieces, taking the audience on an exhausting but inspiring emotional journey.

William Ormerod

September 2017

 

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