Doric String Quartet. Photo: doricstringquartet.com
The English Chamber Music outfit, the Doric String Quartet, played at the Libby Gardner Concert Hall last Thursday, a program of quartets featuring Beethoven, Korngold and Brahms. It was a love fest between the small but dedicated audience for this 19th and 20th version of small group music, and one of the world’s more celebrated young ensembles. Looking every inch a dream from central casting, violinists Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, violist Simon Tandree, and the bespectacled cellist, John Myerscough, walked onstage, dressed, as the marketing for this tidy, handsome crew suggests, very well indeed. Mr. Myerscough introduced the group and offered a brief introduction for each piece with a voice clearly from London, and with the palpable charisma of a believer.
Starting out with Beethoven, who the cellist said often sounds angry and passionate and sad, here it was jolly and had a sly sense of humor. This quartet, he suggested, is a series of scenes from village life, from the serious to the drunken. It was true, Beethoven’s Quartet in A major opus 18, No. 5. turns out to be funny and traveloguey, a soundtrack for a lifestyle long since gone. What I took away from the quartet, which I had no memory of, though I have heard it, was just how darned inventive the s.o.b. was. On the other hand, this was an early work, and is a reply to, and mirror of, Mozart’s quartet in A major. So some of the rapid-fire ideas are reaction rather than inspiration. It was, nonetheless, a fun change-up to hear, given how important and popular the late Beethoven Quartets have been in culture during the 20th Century. The third movement, in particular, seemed a tour of a changing and rambunctious afternoon in a forest and street during some passing festival season. It culminated in a ragged and debauched march.
While introducing the Korngold Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 34, Mr. Myerscough explained that Erich Korngold was perhaps the greatest prodigy of classical music, and yes, that includes Mozart. His childhood compositions were of a higher caliber, and Mahler said, after hearing him play his cantata, Gold, when he was just eight years old, that he was a great musical genius. His Die tote Stadt, now largely forgotten, was the most popular opera in the world when he was twenty-two. But being Jewish in increasingly antisemitic Vienna, he soon came to America, and Hollywood. Called the father of movie scores, his music for Robin Hood is considered among the greatest pieces written for a film. But during his life, he fell from his peer’s favor; he was merely writing sounds to make a mood for images. This quartet, written during the second world war, meant to prove he was still an important, serious classical composer. It also happens to be among my favorite pieces, and this quartet’s recording of it on Chandos is first rate. So it was a thrill to hear it live, played by these champions of Korngold. The quartet is a combination of the chromaticism and atonality that marks great Viennese composition from the early twentieth century with the gilded sunlight and drama of Hollywood’s emotional shortcut machine. If you have a chance, you should seek it out and give it a listen.
Brahms wrote and abandoned ten quartets before he thought enough of his efforts to publish the three that survive. This, the Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2, is the second one. A classical sounding piece, large in scope if small in scale, it opens with an ambitiously positive first movement, written in wide brush strokes. It’s second movement is candle-lit, the eye-contact whispers of the cello and viola in dialogue while the violins play along, as if looking away from the conversation at the next table. The third movement is a tragic, slower reprise of the first movement’s more emboldened theme, while the last movement is rather uncontrollably defiant and victorious, moving energetically to its final thoughts.
When it was over, the audience leaped to its feet in mad appreciation. Really? Well, they got up, first thing, those who were near me, and others followed and clapped without stopping until after two exits and entrances, they sat again when the musicians sat again. For the encore, the fourth Bartok string quartet’s fourth movement––a piece all in pizzicato with a fun, surprise ending. And for the encore’s encore, a bit of English cheese in the form of a Beatles-infused composition featuring “Michelle,” “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.”