Long time between drinks

Doric String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday June 15

doric string quartet

                      (L to R) Alex Redington, Ying Xue, Helene Clement, John Myerscough

I’ve got plenty of happy memories of the Dorics in their original shape back in 2007 when the group entered Melbourne’s International Chamber Music Competition and got dudded by some other ensembles along the finals’ road.   Those musicians gave fine service in Bartok No. 6 – not your average young persons’ fare –  and an exemplary Round 2 combination of Brett Dean’s Eclipse with Schumann No. 1 in A minor.  Over the past 12 years, the ensemble has revisited Australia, but not getting past the Huntington Festival in 2013, followed by the 2015 Musica Viva Festival in Sydney.

However, memory only takes you so far.   I’ve got no recollection of the current Doric violist, Helene Clement; just as well, as I find that she only joined up in 2013 to replace Simon Tandree.   It’s probable that first violin Alex Redington and cellist John Myerscough are foundation members.   But the body seems to have enjoyed a change in the Violin 2 chair: Jonathan Stone has been recently replaced by Ying Xue  –  and I mean very recently, Ying having made the move from the Parker String Quartet late in 2018.

Illness kept me away from the group’s first program – Haydn’s Joke, the new Brett Dean No. 3, and the last Schubert.   Still, you couldn’t complain about the alternative a few days later: Haydn Op. 33 No 4, Dean, and Beethoven in C sharp minor.  The players have recorded more than a few Haydn works, although none of the six from the Op. 33 set. Over the past 12 years or so, the group has built up a firm relationship with Dean, ever since the composer heard them performing his work in the 2007 competition here in Melbourne.   And, while they did record the big Schubert in 2017, no Beethoven, large or small, has tempted them into the studio.

Saturday night’s Haydn opening displayed a sharp individual character to the interpretation; par for the course these days.   Before long, you were faced with an unexpectedly wide dynamic range and juxtapositions, not to mention a non-doctrinaire approach to metre, and the occasional sound shock, like the outbreak of rustic fiedel-timbre from Redington in the first movement.   But the actual dynamic terracing left you unsatisfied at various points throughout the reading.   Well, not just that but the abruptness of changes; it was almost as if the players were drawing attention to their own skill at the expense of Haydn’s.

Much better emerged in the two central movements with a generous breadth to the Scherzo and a deft turn to the asymmetrical B flat minor Trio.  At the outset, these players treated the Largo without unflattering flourishes, Redington leading into its small-frame  escapades with a restrained hand during the movement’s brief length.  The first violin also led the revels in Haydn’s Presto/finale with an unassuming mastery, although there are few challenges to the line’s supremacy.   In these pages, the Dorics made their most interesting music, possibly because Haydn offers a variety of segments to play around with, including a winsome pizzicato conclusion that always surprises because of its delicacy, substituting for the usual rabble-rousing welter – yes, even in Haydn.

Dean’s new work has a political subtext; no, more than that.  The work operates as a commentary on the current dispiriting theatre and raft of operators who have taken over the state of play in so many countries.   At the same time, Dean is not only occupied with presenting us with his vision of the world gone astray but he also injects the personal into his work’s progress so that, although you can appreciate the multi-faceted irrationalities that confront the political observer,  you also are a part of the main and, if things have come to this pretty pass, you bear responsibility for it, along with the idiots you allow to represent you.

The work, subtitled Hidden Agendas,  is in five movements: Hubris, Response, Retreat, Self-Censorship and On-Message.   If you so desired, you could find plenty of material in each section to reflect or reinforce your world-view.   But that pursuit suggests the momentary: we will not always have Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Orban, Kim Jong-un, or Mohammed bin Salman to bedevil our times.   Yet most of them will not pass rapidly, so Dean offers a state-of-play commentary, beginning with a kind of communal hurtling where each member of the quartet is involved in synchronized action; it may be discordant, but it presents as organized.   It’s intensely invigorating to watch but you can’t avoid the impression that each performer is operating both in concord with the others and also gainsaying them at the same time.

Response is an opposite in pretty much every way: harmonics dominate the opening strophes in a passive landscape where the participants become more extroverted, the violins reach for high tessitura notes and the lower strings avoid any answering depths, the most memorable device an unaggressive saltando.  For Retreat, the move is back to a form of the work’s initial scrabbling, resolving into sustained chords, under which Myerscough urged out what I can only call an impassioned, well-rocked lullaby.

For the confessional pages of Self-Censorship, Dean has the players exchange their bows for ones that have not been treated with rosin, at the same time wiping down their instruments’ strings to make sure there is a complete absence of the powder.   This is a movement of feints and whispers in which nothing is defined; nothing like a statement of determined effort emerges.  This is not so much a Party-style exercise in self-recrimination or a general admission of guilt for perceived error, but a reservation of the eyes, the tongue and the mind – an old-fashioned monastic would feel completely at home with this music,

Dean brings us round to something like full-circle at the end yet, where there was something collegial about the aggression of the first movement, here the impulse that drives the work impresses as obsessive, more dissonant in language and argument than we heard in Hubris.   Is anything resolved?  I doubt it: the composer leaves us with an open-ended result simply because the world that he deals with has little definition.  These days, information arrives from so many sources through so many different media direct to the listener/reader, to such a point where the tasks of shuffling into shape, categorising and even imbibing cogently all the materials with which we are bombarded  are becoming impossibly difficult.   Dean is far from negative; much of this quartet is immediately attractive and challenging.   Yet what he leaves you (me) with is a type of regretful scepticism.

Of course, the composer has been fortunate in his interpreters who showed, at every stage, a confidence and security of delivery that did not falter, even in those passages that required split-second communal accuracy.

While you could find certain facets of the Beethoven performance to enjoy, beginning with a firm, spartan rendition of the initial fugue which often refrained from treating those multiple sforzandi as if they were escapees from Verklarte Nacht country, to a controlled and bounding account of the Allegro finale – in tune and in time to its manic last bars.   Throughout, however, I was troubled by an impression that I’d gained back in the Haydn run-through: the ensemble’s viola, Helene Clement, tends to self-emphasize, her line brimming with over-confidence even in those passages where her instrument is making the running.

About the quartet’s core, the Andante with variations, you were hard pressed to quibble, the movement opening with a reassuring fluency and maintaining its underlying urgency.    Yet the group found it difficult to negotiate the following Presto with much beyond the slam-dunk attack that many another ensemble employs.   By the end, you were happy for the weltering action to stop; no, it’s not a set of pages that lends itself to subtlety or that gains relief by studied elegance of delivery but it need not be handled with a coarseness of utterance like the remorseless pounding that ran from bar 220 to bar 232, or again between bars 434 and 446.

As with so many other experiences of this monument, you were happy to have experienced it one more time but I couldn’t class this night’s work as one of those transcendent visions of the score that ensures a tolerance amounting to admiration for its brusque plain-speaking.