Musica Viva: Doric String Quartet

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Published: 17th June, 2019

Doric String Quartet honoured us with their presence in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for the first in their two-program tour of Australia. Program 1 comprised Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, op.33 no.2 ‘The Joke’, Schubert’s String Quartet no 15 in G major, D887 and a featured new commission by Brett Dean: his String Quartet No 3, Hidden Agendas.

The concert began with ‘The Joke”, and the balanced interplay of the voices of the instruments was exquisite. All players appeared to be using bows of the period, with the tell-tale ivory frogs – a detail that was confirmed at the post-concert talk.

In an extremely refined rendition of this cheeky piece, the leader, Alex Redington, at times used subtle portamento and at others obvious glissando to bring the joke to life. The sound resembled fine bone china, and the delicate art deco colours – subdued purple dress of violinist Ying Xue, green pant suit of violist Hélène Clément alongside the patent shoes and waistcoats of the men – made it feel like high tea at the Savoy. The delicate sound in the second movement gave way to a pleasing lack of vibrato in the third – pure and unadulterated Haydn. The unison chords in the third movement were clean and perfectly timed, never strident as can often be the case. Hélène Clément often rose from her seat for emphasis and Alex Redington had equally restless legs stomping soundlessly for effect. I’m wondering whether Haydn may have expected a more rustic sound, but the quartet cut loose in the Finale: presto placing us in a barn dance by comparison to the rest of the work and finishing brilliantly with the audience left hanging on the long, teasing pauses. A special mention is warranted for Ying Xue, whose second violin playing was integral, yet indistinguishable from Redington’s first – a perfect duet of tone and articulation.

Brett Dean was present to introduce his latest offering, the world premiere performance of a work celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Recital Centre, specifically written for “the Dorics”, as he affectionately called them, and their 2019 tour for Musica Viva. Philanthropist Ulrike Klein AO and international presenters also provided support for the commission. Dean wouldn’t be alone in labelling the quartet “his favourite quartet on the planet”. He was glowing in his praise of them, and they certainly didn’t disappoint.

Hidden Agendas is a string quartet in five movements with “dramaturgical significance” and written in London against the “background noise” of the “Brexit shambles”, to paraphrase Dean in his introduction.

The first movement, Hubris, began after the quartet emerged, each with an extra bow and cloth, to join their parts outstretched and draped across music stands. A lightning attack and gallop ensued but with none of the nervous scrambling that often characterises the playing of contemporary music. Despite the relentless activity in the parts, and the cellist, John Myerscough, shedding bow hairs by the dozen, the players had complete control and poise. An accelerando indicated we were going somewhere. Dean had described the movement as a party congress searching for unanimity of voice leading towards a splintering in the second movement – a sequence of false harmonics and squeaked cello sounds. The language of Schoenberg, Berg and Shostakovich were brought to mind. In Response, silence came and then gave way to an excited section, high and glassy and moving into the third movement, Retreat, which at some point registered a sickly atonal chord. Relief was found in a cello melody accompanied by held notes in the other parts and then glissando unison. Were we back with “the Joke”? It certainly seemed so with the cellist also tuning a string down within the movement.

As we were told ahead of time, there was a significant gap between the third and fourth movements, where the players wiped down their strings and swapped bows for un-rosined versions. The crystalline effect begun in the previous movement continued in Self-Censorship, a shimmering oasis of whispers. A melancholy little tune again in the bass and without mute became more resolute. The players replaced bows one by one and we moved into On-Message with energetic playing and frenetic sirens and the screaming voice becoming more united. No sooner had we begun than the 25-minute work abruptly ended.

Brett Dean’s third String Quartet was a resounding success and, more than just playing the work, it seemed the Doric String Quartet had completely internalised the voice of the composer and made the work their own.

After interval we returned to a pastoral G major quartet by Franz Schubert, his No. 15, D887. The first movement Allegro molto moderato showed the quartet to be masters of subtle, silken playing, perfectly synchronised with the whispered pianissimos magical. The second movement Andante un poco moto had the cello, the most human voice, singing a folk song. The Scherzo: Allegro vivace picked up the joke theme again for the evening and the players showed a fierceness before the Ländler transported us to the ballroom of a medium-sized stately home for a waltz. The grace, clarity and unity of the very fast Allegro Assai made for pure poetry.

Just as the name suggests, the Doric Quartet are four elegant columns holding up the temple of string quartet repertoire. And as Leonardo da Vinci apparently said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

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Bronwen Whyatt reviewed the Doric String Quartet concert given at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on June 11, 2019.