Lunchtime Series: Doric String Quartet, 10th. January 2019

Two years ago the Doric Quartet gave a concert which will long stay in my memory. With regard to this concert one can only say that lightning did strike twice and to my mind it only supported what seems to be a widely held belief that this is one of the pre-eminent quartets on the present day concert scene. I can only repeat that they have what is for me is a central characteristic of a great quartet, the ability to produce a rich corporate sound at the same time as giving ample opportunity for the individual musical personalities of the players to bloom.

And how they bloomed in this instance! Clearly a single change of personnel since their last visit had not made an iota of difference to the characteristics of the quartet. In the opening work, Mozart’s first Prussian Quartet  No.21, the very first bars illustrated this. The way the first violin caressed the opening melody converted it into a thing of wonder, Mozart at his very finest. Later I wondered whether my reaction was a bad case of post Christmas pleasure that the concert season had resumed, but no, it wasn’t. Returning home I put on a recording of the work by a German quartet and I ceased to wonder why I had hitherto not rated these works as amongst Mozart’s most inspired. Set beside the penny plain recorded performance , this live performance found striking things at every turn in the music and this was achieved as if it was the most natural thing in the world. There were any number of  breathtaking moments throughout, a  range of expressive colour and dynamics , the exquisite playing of the music given at times to the cello in the middle movements, the way time and again the music was given time to breathe and finally the wit and virtuosity of the playing in the last movement. All  of this seemed to be obviously waiting  in the score to be realised . Conversely not once did the playing stray into that over expressiveness which can in Mozart feel as disappointing as its opposite.

From Mozart we were then catapulted into Bartok’s 5th Quartet as if the Doric wanted to give an exhibition of the raw power they had locked away. Certainly nothing could have shown that better than the opening movement whose explosive sound world at times conveyed some utterly unfettered almost manic universe of eastern European dance. If possible, that was topped by the final movement whose breathless continuity reminded me of nothing like as much as the finale to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, albeit rooted much more obviously in folk music. This was played with thrilling virtuosity.

Yet between these two movements , as the cellist John Myerscough pointed out ,in the other three movements at the core of the work, two slow movements framing a scherzo with more than little of wit in it, , there was so much of what has been called Bartok’s night music which creates a very different musical world, one that is weird and eerie and requires playing of the utmost delicacy. Here the players were quite brilliant in establishing the composer’s  world, often with little more than wisps of sound.

After this performance I was left pondering not for the first time as to why, of all the great 20c. composers, Bartok should have been seen as box office poison for so long. Of course, there is much violent discord at times in the music and certainly he does not fit easily into any Classic FM approach. However, the intensity of his musical voice rooted as it is in folk music and at the same time in classical form surely speaks ultimately with the same powerful visionary directness as in very different ways do, for example,  the musical  worlds of  Vaughan Williams and Janacek. Perhaps his time has come with audiences. Certainly on this occasion there was a sell out and the ovation  for the Doric’s astonishing performance seemed perhaps to suggest that it had.