Online Concert: Doric String Quartet & Brett Dean @ Wigmore Hall – Haydn & Beethoven

Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington, Ying Xue (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)], Brett Dean (viola)

Haydn String Quartet in F major Op.50/5 ‘The Dream’ (1787)
Beethoven String Quintet in C major Op.29 (1801)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 23 January 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Is there a better musical tonic on a grey Monday in January than a Haydn string quartet? Not in this case, as the Doric String Quartet built on the solid foundations of their recent recordings of the composer’s music for Chandos with a well-crafted and nicely weighted account of one of the composer’s middle-period works.

Haydn wrote so many symphonies, string quartets and piano trios – to name just three disciplines in which he was prolific – that nicknames are helpful in identifying the works. Some of them can be quite spurious, but in the case of The Dream the label describes the serene slow movement of the quartet, and its carefree violin fantasies. The work is placed fifth work in a set of six quartets written for King Frederick William II of Prussia, and finds Haydn making further strides in the development of this new form.

The Doric captured that sense of discovery, although they took just a little while to settle, with a couple of relatively coarse moments at the start. This was however a beautifully played account, with an enjoyable lightness of touch in the outer movements and an airy account of the ‘dream’ movement itself. The players were clearly sticking to the first principles of chamber music, enjoying the conversational exchanges between the instruments but bringing the audience in on their enjoyment too. This was most evident in a lively third movement Menuetto and Vivace finale.

Brett Dean is one of the most-performed living composers, but he also has a formidable CV as a viola player, playing in the Berlin Philharmoniker for 14 years. While composing is his primary discipline these days he remains active as an instrumentalist. The Doric Quartet’s current tour includes his String Quartet Hidden Agendas, while welcoming Dean as a notable addition to the ensemble for Beethoven’s String Quintet.

The five have an easy musical chemistry, Dean effortlessly slotting in to play a work that is beginning to get the recognition it deserves, both within Beethoven’s output and in context as a fine continuation of Mozart’s innovations in the form. This performance got to the heart of Beethoven’s energetic writing in a flowing first movement, enjoying the melodic exchanges, while the second movement explored the richer mid-range colours available in music of elegiac quality, as well as enjoying the composer’s excursions to further flung keys.

In the third movement Scherzo there was a notable raising of the stakes, and an upsurge in kinetic energy. The demands were comfortably matched by the five players here, who built on this with a finale of high drama and stormy countenance.

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Wigmore Mondays – Doric String Quartet play Debussy and Bartók

doric-string-quartet

Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)]

Bartók String Quartet no.4 (1928) (26 minutes)

Debussy String Quartet in G minor (1893) (27 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 September

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 26 October

Arcana’s commentary

An intriguing clash of two of the twentieth century’s biggest composers, glimpsed at very different stages in their development. It was perhaps a surprise that the Doric Quartet chose to begin with the Bartók, with its more abrasive tones, rhythms and harmonic language, but it received an extremely fine performance here.

Bartók wrote the piece at a point where his use of ‘cyclical’ and ‘arch’ forms was prevalent in his work. The String Quartet no.4 works as an arch, its first and fifth movements big-boned compositions, while the second and fourth are flighty and elusive. The third is a typical example of the composer’s night music, supremely evocative and more than a little wary of the shadows.

If not perhaps as ‘rustic’ as some of the Hungarian quartets in performance, it was played with precision accuracy, the rhythms making themselves clear with plenty of cut and thrust. The rocking motion of the second idea in the first movement (from 3:50 on the broadcast) offered a nice contrast.

It was perhaps in the middle movements however where the Doric were strongest. The second movement, played with mutes (from 8:11) offered shadowy contours and elusive, silvery sounds – not forgetting the odd outburst – while the third, a slow movement (from 12:02), has lovely shady contours at the end (from 17:28). Best of all was the fourth movement (17:58), played pizzicato (plucked) and with some especially good snappy effects.

Bartók’s moments of simplicity were surprisingly moving, while the gritty determination on show elsewhere was very convincing – nowhere more so than the start of the last movement, a big ensemble section of terrific drive (21:08).

Debussy’s only String Quartet comes towards the start of his composing career, just as he was shaking off the overbearing influence of Wagner. It signals a conscious move towards the more ‘impressionist’ language he started using with orchestral works such as Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, but remains packed with extremely catchy tunes, enjoyable humour and rich textures.

The Doric performance was a very good one but did on occasion lapse towards a bit of fussiness with tempo variations. It certainly started rather smoothly (30:31), blunting the edges of Debussy’s humour a bit, but lovingly played. The less witty approach could also be felt in the second movement (from 37:10) – which, incidentally, is receiving a lot of exposure at the moment thanks to the Apple advertisement below:

The slow movement (from 41:21) was a beauty, notable for some lovely, elegiac sounds from the viola of Hélène Clément (at 44:22) and a beautifully judged climax. The finale felt a bit episodic, and it was difficult to always hear Alex Redington’s line at the very top of the texture where I was sat at the end of the hall. That said, its exuberance (from 49:47) could hardly be faulted.

Further listening

If you like the music in this concert, Ravel’s only String Quartet is a logical piece to hear next. It bears many similarities to the Debussy but is if anything even more exquisitely formed. For something a bit fuller for strings from Bartók, the Music for strings, percussion and celesta is a terrific orchestral piece, full of atmosphere and drama – so much so that Stanley Kubrick turned to it as part of his horror film The Shining. The playlist can be found here on Spotify, together with the music from this concert: