Echt-quartet experiences from the Doric String Quartet

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
The Doric String Quartet

HAYDN – String Quartet Op.76 No.6 in E-flat
BRETT DEAN – Eclipse
SCHUBERT – String Quartet No.15 in G D.887

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 25th July, 2014

I didn’t get to see and hear the Doric String Quartet on their first New Zealand visit in 2010, but on the strength of what I heard at their recent Wellington concert I’ll be keeping an eye on their schedules and things from now on. Whatever coincidences of conditions were brought to play, they were of an order which left me in a kind of trance for days after the Quartet’s concert, with scraps of the music they presented continually sounding in my head and refusing to leave me alone.

What these players seemed to me to be able to do was generate a kind of “the ordinary and the fabulous” music-making world, to which we in the audience were all invited. From the first few phrases of the Haydn (in that gorgeous E-flat Major key) our sensibilities were taken “somewhere else” by a combination of the warmth and piquancy of the writing and what I can describe only as a kind of focused sensitivity on the part of the Quartet’s players.

It was a feeling quite at odds with the cavernous spaces of the Michael Fowler Centre, a venue which was never designed for chamber music, but which nevertheless yielded on this occasion to the blandishments of the sounds brought into being by the musicians. But in a strange and alchemic way, those vistas had a part to play in the process of creating the fabulous – the quartet’s penchant for hushed tones throughout seemed to throw down a kind of gauntlet to our listening environment, as if to say “Can these spaces unlock our secrets? – or will our tones be scattered as wildflower petals in the wilderness, lost just as if we never in the first place made these sounds?”

Well, the musicians needn’t have worried – thanks to that aforementioned “focused sensitivity” everything the players did with the music registered, from the softest whisperings to the fullest, richest declamations. But I think the combination of larger-than-usual listening-distances and the quartet’s fondness for finely-wrought, inward-sounding tones resulted in a kind of focused, concentrated interplay between music, musicians and listeners that worked a potent spell throughout the concert.

Haydn’s theme-and-variations opening movement of his Op.76 No.6 quartet beguiled us right from its opening, every phrase and contrasting impulse carrying with it both spontaneity and logic. The second, hymn-like movement seemed almost like a 3/4 version of the famous Emperor Quartet’s slow movement. I liked the “breathless with wonderment” aspect of the playing, with not a note or phrase sounding mechanical or contrived – a momentary shift into minor mode at one point called forth pauses charged with expectation, before a communion-like resolution provided the only possible response.

Deftly-wrought syncopations throughout the minuet’s opening gave way to the trio’s pealing bell-like scales, sounded by the players with great delight among the combinations, by turns droll and festive in character. Then, the finale’s almost ritualistic minuet-like aspect at the beginning occasionally released an energized, scampering figure which enlivened the textures and gave a wider context to the movement’s apparent severity – the quartet dug into some wonderful modulations and danced its way through some tricky canonic interchanges, the sequences communicating to us a great deal of creative satisfaction – as the poet Hopkins wrote about his early-morning sighting of a falcon’s flight – “the achieve of: the mastery of the thing!”

Brett Dean’s work Eclipse took us to realms as far-removed from Haydn’s finely-abstracted creations as could be imagined. This work for string quartet, in a single movement but with three distinct sections, was written by the Australian composer in response to the 2001 Tampa crisis, the name referring to a Norwegian vessel whose captain’s actions saved the lives of hundreds of Indonesian refugees on board a boat which got into difficulties while heading for Australia. Though Dean in a programme note describes the work as “first and foremost a piece of chamber music”, his initial impetus to create the work would for most listeners surely seem an inextricable part of the process of listening to and understanding the end result.  I think it was Sibelius who once said “music reflects life” – and as a political statement Dean’s work is no less musically impactful – in a completely different way – than was Finlandia.

The composer described his work as “brooding, troubled and at times aggressive”, his music describing a situation in which people found themselves “riding the cusp between life and death….and entering the realm of sheer existence”. It’s certainly a tour de force of virtuosic quartet-playing, employing techniques and effects which were exploratory to an extreme degree and positively orchestral in their impact. The work’s three sections, played without a break, described in turn the sounds and ambient contexts one might have associated with a ship drifting out at sea, the naked power and terrifying effects of an oceanic storm, and finally the ensuing calm associated with feelings of both relief and uncertainty on the part of the ship’s passengers regarding their fate.

Each section made a different kind of impact, one which tended to go beyond the composer’s actual programme and draw on deeper, more archetypal feelings concerning aspects of the “human condition”.  Thus the quartet’s opening evocations seemed to me to suggest the reality of vast spaces through which we humans carry out our small business – at the outset things were only a notch or two up from inaudibility, though things gradually built up by a kind of “growing from seed” process. It became a slow coalescence of dry, spectral impulses with variegated timbral and gestural features, such as tremolandi, and afterwards pizzicati, the spontaneous, even chaotic assemblage subsiding into order as the music proceeded.

The “storm” sequence was nightmarish to say the least – extremities of textures and dynamics, between which were “roller-coaster rides” of the utmost physicality, the players extracting from their instruments sounds that readily conveyed terror, helplessness and despair by dint of their menace and vehemence. At its climax brutal punctuations vied with awful silences which were then whipped into a frenzy by vicious tremolandi passages, whose intensities gradually dissipated, leading the way to an ambience of shattered fragments, of exhausted spirits, tremulous voices, and glimmerings of hope, a solo cello’s wraith-like traceries attempting to imbue the besieged human spirit with the will to recover and continue.

In some respects Dean’s work resembled that which concluded the concert, Schubert’s equally searing G Major Quartet D.887. Both pieces inhabited realms of physical and psychological duress, presented in each case with unequivocal visceral impact, though Schubert’s work had no programme as such, rather, abstracting its dramatic qualities via sonata form. But what power there was in those abstractions – what candour! – what tragedy!

The Doric’s way with this music was to bring out a kind of rapt inwardness to the quieter, more lyrical sections, playing with the utmost concentration and refinement of tone. This approach had the effect of making us listen all the more intently to the music-making in that vast space – having captured our sensibilities thus, the music’s more vigorous moments came across with all the more impact and character. Though not as “gutsy” as the trenchant attack adopted by some groups I’d heard in the music’s more harrowing sections, the Doric’s keen focus and intensity put across the music just as strongly and tellingly, made all the more journey-like by the observance of the first movement repeat.

Equally as memorable was the stark beauty of the ‘cello-led lament which began the second movement, the players paring all warmth from their tones so as to sharpen the intensities of contrast with the trenchant second subject – here, at once tightly-focused and vastly-flung, the ambience a-tingle with anguish and grey-hued with sorrow. But then the quartet made certain we felt the touches of warmth on our faces which came with the major-key statements of the opening towards the movement’s end, Schubert characteristically putting on a brave face through the music’s tears.

The spookily elfin scherzo kept its sotto voce mode for as long as it could, the playing hinting at something diabolical darting between the shadows, with occasional szforzandi causing a scalp-prickling effect. Set against these urgencies, the long-breathed waltz-likeTrio seemed like a kind of distant dream of dancing phantoms, the shades, perhaps, of happier memories. But even more startling was the finale’s frenetic pace, its flight more psychological than physical, the notes falling over themselves in places trying to “escape” the claustrophobic crowding of those syncopations, and the brutality of the occasional szforzandi. I’ve never heard this music take on such a sinister “ride to the abyss” aspect, its energies transformed into compulsive shudderings, everything haunted with a ghostly pallor, like a rider set on galloping towards a grim and unremitting destiny.

One could conclude from the above, quite rightly, that the concert was for me a throughly engaging and richly-wrought experience – sterling testimony to the skill and musicality of an exceptional quartet of players.












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