Monday, April 15, 2013

On Hearing the Doric String Quartet

A performance by a string quartet is unusual fare for the Vancouver Recital Society, so when I was given tickets to a performance by Britain’s Doric String Quartet, I went with more than my unusual degree of anticipation for a musical performance. The quartet was only formed in 1998, and the musicians – violinists Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, violist Simon Tandree, and cellist John Myerscough, who also acted as (eloquent) spokesman for the group – look like they are perhaps in their early thirties.

From the first notes of Haydn’s G minor quartet, Op. 20, No. 3, I felt that we were in for a very special afternoon. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that this group of young musicians produce a sound and play with a degree of maturity that reminded me of great quartets like the now disbanded Amadeus String Quartet.

In addition to the Haydn, the quartet essayed Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 34, the last of the composer’s three quartets, and Schubert String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, more famously known as Death and the Maiden.

Part of what makes a performance great is what goes on in between the notes. In the performance of the quartet yesterday, there was a magical quality in the silences, the spaces in between notes, and in between musical ideas. The musicians were helped by the wonderful acoustics of the Chan Centre of the Performing Arts, which gives the string sound a bloom, an “after-sound” that would have been missing in Vancouver’s other performing spaces.

I appreciated also the musicians’ choice of tempi in all three quartets, especially the tempo relationship between the movements of the three works performed. In the first and final movements of the Schubert, the quartet played it at a more than usually quick tempo, making the counterpoint extremely exciting. However, within the context of the work, these tempi, for lack of a better word, “worked”.

Of particular interest to me was the quartet’s performance of Korngold’s third quartet. An astonishing child prodigy, Korngold composed, in his early teens, works that were admired by Gustav Mahler. Forced into exile to Hollywood, the composer became the first of generations of film composers, a sort of John Williams of his day - but musically far more advanced and sophisticated. Written between 1944 to1945 and dedicated to conductor Bruno Walter, the quartet borrows significantly from the composer’s film music. Korngold’s last quartet alternates between passages of a post-Wagnerian chromaticism to lyrical and beautiful, and unapologetically diatonic melodies.

Korngold’s gorgeous violin concerto has a new found popularity in recent years. Perhaps the quartet’s magnificent performance of the composer’s quartets, both yesterday and in their recording, will lead to greater interest in his chamber music works.

Perhaps some members of the audience would have preferred the performance to have more of an “edge”. For me, the beauty, the quality of the sound made by these four musicians was what captured my attention yesterday afternoon. It would be interesting to hear this quartet playing the quartets of Shostakovich and Bartok, works that sometimes call for a bit of harshness in the sound.

Once again, we must be grateful to Leila Getz, artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, for bringing the Doric String Quartet to Vancouver for their Canadian debut. As for me, I would travel anywhere to hear this talented young ensemble again in a wide variety of repertoire, and in the very near future.

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