Dallas — The Feb. 10 concert from Doric String Quartet was a stunning experience for the playing, but more so for their program. The Dallas Chamber Music Society audience in Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium was taken on a journey that started with Haydn, continued with a devastating essay on impending death by Benjamin Britten, then moved on to the craggy landscape of a quartet by Sibelius.
The Doric String Quartet, with violinists Alex Redington and Ying Xue, violist Hélène Clément and cellist John Myerscough, played with remarkable intonation, musical group-thought, and technical mastery. All this is expected in the top touring quartets, but what really sets them aside is their ensemble playing, which was on a nearly perfect level. Even the smallest details were precisely in unison, from dynamic levels to long-held ending notes with each player at the same bow position.
Admittedly, this is a small detail. What does it matter where their bows are when the held note ends as long as it ended together? Hearing them you realize that it means a lot in the quality of the sound as well as exactly matching the progression of the decrescendo. The bow plays differently, depending on its position on the string, as well as the pressure being applied. It didn’t take long to notice how exceptional this particular detail defined the superiority of the Doric Quartet. Even is an evening of exceeded expectations, watching their bows’ perfectly matched trajectory in such moments was astounding. Some quartets accomplish this detail but not with such consistency.
Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.33, No. 2, “The Joke,” was marked by the influence of period-authentic performance practices adapted to modern instruments. Vibrato was sparing and but slides between notes were daringly applied in a generous manner. Why modern performances are loath to use the color of slides that are characteristic of past eras is beyond me.
Britten’s Quartet No. 3 is another manner. It is a highly depressing masterwork that served as the composer’s farewell, intended or not. He didn’t even live for two weeks afterwards so he didn’t hear it played. Perhaps, it is not all that surprising because he had just completed his opera, Death in Venice, which dealt with a similar subject. In fact, fragments of that opera appear, ghostlike, in this quartet and were brought out by the Doric quartet. It ended in despair and hopelessness and the audience listened in absolute silence.
Sibelius’ Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56 is known as “Voces Intimae,” meaning “intimate voices.” Although it didn’t descend anywhere near the depths that Britten took us, it was still a very serious performance. The Doric Quartet, as in the rest of the program, changed musical language to the nobility of Sibelius’ vacant landscapes of his native Finland. It was necessary to remember that it was a string quartet playing rather than a small string orchestra.
It was not just the excellence of the playing that made this concert so exceptional; but their mastery of such different musical languages and their gift of conveying the composer’s intentions so vividly.