The Doric String Quartet at Wigmore Hall review ****

Doric String Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 22nd November 2019

Benjamin Britten – String Quartets No 1 in D Op 25, No 2 in C Op 36 and No 3 Op 94

All three Britten string quartets in one evening. Courtesy of the Doric String Quartet. Who have been working hard on this very repertoire, visible in their recent acclaimed recording. The Quartet has a long association with Britten’s music, having formed at Pro Corda in 1998, the school near Aldeburgh, and with Helene Grimaud playing on Britten’s very own viola.

Britten’s music can, I imagine, sound either too austere or too cautious for many listeners, depending on their musical taste. Too flashy, relying on surface effect, in thrall to musical form, and not generating real emotion. A bit too obvious, even too “perfect” maybe, though not immediately appealing. For me though this is his genius. The musical ideas are clear, but still present a challenge to those of us who don’t really understand music, even though they are not actually that challenging. In 1970s football parlance, one of those technical European midfielders, “good on the ball” but somehow suspect, lacking passion or “an engine”. But with performers who love and understand the music, and locate its centre and line, then there is feeling and passion aplenty. Easiest to find in the vocal and choral works and the operas but also abundant, for me at least, in the chamber music and, specifically, the three string quartets.

Which is where the Dorics step in. For there is no holding back here. They have a big, muscular sound which, whilst never obscuring the clarity of thought which is BB’s trademark, especially in the super sparse Third gives the quartets a punch and a drama that I haven’t encountered before. Less ascetic, more buoyant. Though never too extroverted, true I believe to BB’s intentions. Though with plenty of volume when required.

The First was completed in 1941, to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge during Britten and Pears’s US sojourn, (though it is not actually the first quartet, BB having revived an early composition in the key of D, when just 17, late in life). It starts with a yearning sostenuto, missing Blighty perhaps, is followed by a swanky runaround Allegretto, a nocturnal Andante led by Alex Redington’s violin and ending with the sparkling harmonies of a rondo finale. Easy to place in the flash harry early years for BB.

Which is why the Second Quartet composed just 4 years later, when BB was deep in Peter Grimes, is still so surprising to me. Commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, BB’s beloved forebear, it kicks off with a full throated Allegro, owing much to Schubert in feel and Haydn in form. The terse Vivace which follows links this movement to the final, stunning Chacony. BB just loved this form, variously chaconne or passacaglia, but his one is a belter. Near 20 minutes long, it shifts its shape continuously and, in places, gets a bit weird. The Doric’s really got hold of it and gave it a good shake. Loved it.

Which in turn set up the Third. BB waiting 30 years before coming back to the form and was near the end by the time he started. Not quite as death suffused as DSCH’s final fifteenth quartet, but still pretty bleak. At least until the final Passacaglia movement. In a work that quotes liberally from the final opera Death in Venice, this movement, like its equivalent in the opera, suggests a peaceful farewell for the protagonist, whether Aschenbach or BB. Prior to that, in the oppositional two part Duets, the jarring Ostinato scherzo, the central poignant Solo cantilena for first violin and the scorching Burlesque which precedes the descriptive Recitative which introduces that Passacaglia, we hear some of BB’s best ever beats.

As good a performance of BB’s quartets as you are likely to hear and, a reminder of why they are up there with late Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich as the best of the form.