Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Doric String Quartet - Mozart, Janáček and Beethoven, 29 December 2009

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.15 in D minor, KV 421
Janáček – String Quartet no.2, ‘Intimate Letters’
Beethoven – String Quartet no.7 in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’

Alex Redlington, Jonathan Stone (violins)
Simon Tandree (viola)
John Myerscough (violoncello)

Mozart’s music, as many of us know from bitter experience, is the most difficult of all to perform well. At the best of times, when it formed part of a living, developing culture, there was nowhere to hide; nowadays, the influence of the ‘authenticke’ brigade is so strong, even amongst supposedly ‘modern’ performers, that Mozart performance has been rendered all but impossible. At least the Doric String Quartet did not travel far down that particular road. We were spared the attention-seeking antics of what I suppose at some point we shall have to call the ‘uncovered-gut-scraping community’, though the performance, as if cowed by Taliban-like ‘community leaders’, remained somewhat tentative. Today one has to be grateful for Mozart playing that is not metronomic and that permits vibrato, and there was more to praise than that. Contrapuntal clarity, especially during the first and third movements of the D minor quartet, was most welcome, with John Myerscough’s cello line perhaps unusually prominent – and welcomely so. For the most part, this, despite the minor mode, and Mozart’s avowedly demonic tonality, was more Apollonian than Dionysian Mozart. However, there were passages, for instance the recapitulation of the opening Allegro moderato, in which emotional reaches previously only hinted at were more fully explored. The slow movement was an Andante in the modern sense, that is, not really a slow movement, more of an intermezzo, though it had an undeniably brisk elegance to it. Following that, the intensity to the minuet from its opening bars was striking, whilst the trio exhibited a fine sense of the outdoors, bringing Salzburg serenades to my mind. Here, Alex Redlington’s first violin and Simon Tandree’s viola proved unfailingly melodic, whilst the pizzicato passages were equally well handled. The finale was cultivated, and sometimes looked forward to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet; perhaps a little more in the way of Schubertian foreshadowing would have resulted in a more ominous rendition, but such was clearly not the intent. I very much liked Redlington’s sinuous way with Mozart’s chromatic passages, whilst the second variation, so understandably admired by Schoenberg, exhibited an emotional and textural intensity that yet remained firmly – perhaps a little too firmly? – within ‘Classical’ bounds.

Janáček’s second quartet experienced no such inhibitions; indeed, it received a very fine performance, fully at home with what can sometimes prove elusive idioms. The glassiness of Tandree’s early viola interventions was at one with the composer’s initial intention to employ the viola d’amore, whilst the passionate outbursts from elsewhere provided high drama, as if mindful of Janáček’s operatic output. The slow movement was equally impassioned, highly impressive in the way its fragmentary nature was built into something more; the defiant close was almost Bartókian. Consolation, though far from illusory, came in the third movement, with the first violin’s statement of the lullaby-like rocking theme. Emotional intensity mounted, before the turn to ‘terror’, of which the composer wrote to his muse, Kamila Stösslová. The finale sounded properly ecstatic. Once again, the players transmuted compositional discontinuities into a greater whole, responding equally well to the composer’s challenging quicksilver changes of mood.

The first movement of Beethoven’s op.59 no.1 quartet was a bit on the fast side, though the false exposition repeat was handled well. Indeed, structure was clear throughout. However, I felt this was all a bit too good-natured, lacking in Beethovenian grit and gruffness. The scherzo began in a similar vein, but ‘late Beethoven’ – despite the period of composition – discontinuities inspired a Janáček-like response, clearly drawing upon the experience of the previous work. There was not always quite the sense of inevitability one might have wished for, but there was clearly a straining towards it. Musical concerns, however, trumped the metaphysical, here and elsewhere, with the partial exception of the slow movement. For there, a response to the composer’s marking, mesto, registered with rapt intensity, not least in the leader’s sweetness of tone and Myerscough’s replies. The tempo sounded just right – which nowadays, of course, is a relief in itself. A few intonational slips could be heard, but nothing too serious. The fast finale, however, whilst often exciting, could sometimes trip over itself. There were estimable qualities, then, to this Beethoven, but the Janáček was the thing.

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