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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Dvorak would have approved of quartet’s commitment

AN attractive aspect of this winter’s concert programme presented by the Hexham and District Music Society is the variety of chamber music groups.

Like me, I imagine that many of the audience are delighted that there are two quartets featured in the season. The first is the Doric String Quartet, who appeared at the Queen’s Hall playing a programme of Haydn, Janacek and Dvorak.

The Doric Quartet has a fine pedigree. Formed in 1998, it has steadily consolidated its position as one of the most talented of our British groups, releasing its first CD in 1998 and now in the process of recording Haydn’s Op 20 quartets.

So, it was logical that the evening’s music began with one of these – the Op. 20 No. 2 in C. John Myerscough, the cellist, introduced the piece, saying that the group had been in the studio earlier in the week recording it, and this gave an interesting insight into their performance.

Here there was much to admire, particularly in the deft matching of the upper and lower instruments and an ability to play breath-catching pianissimos. But I was also left with the feeling that this performance was rather careful, perhaps reflecting the clinical atmosphere of their earlier studio sessions and that after a couple more concerts it would probably become more genial and relaxed.

Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1 followed next, providing a strong contrast to Haydn’s classical style. Born in the 1850s, Leos Janacek combined his work as a composer with related skills as a organist and teacher. His deep commitment to all things Czech drew him to his native folk song and this dominates the character of his music.

Before Sir Charles Mackerras brought the operas to the world’s major opera houses, Janacek’s music was mostly unknown. His First Quartet, based on Tolstoy’s novel, The Kreutzer Sonata, is contemporary with The Cunning Little Vixen. With its fragmentary melodies and abrupt changes of mood related to the book’s turbulent love story, the score presents strong challenges to the players.

The Doric musicians carried these off with considerable panache and if occasionally their playing seemed harsh and rugged, it was very much in keeping with Janacek’s intentions.

The evening concluded with Dvorak’s String Quartet in G, the last and longest of his works for this combination.

Written during his brief time as director of the New York Conservatoire of Music, the score comes from a wonderfully fruitful period in the composer’s life. The combination of an interest in the country’s folk music and a deep longing to return home to Europe seem to have prompted a succession of fine compositions, including the New World Symphony, the American Quartet, Op 96, and this one in G.

In shaping this music, Dvorak combines his gift for melody with an awareness of the musical conventions of his time. Like Brahms, he looked to balance the traditional formalities of the two big outer movements with freer treatment of the middle pair.

Of these, the Doric’s playing in the adagio was particularly impressive, with the players making the most of their individual opportunities. As elsewhere in the quartet, there were moments when we could have welcomed more projection from the first violin, but overall there was much to enjoy here.

By the end of the evening, I had the sense that Dvorak himself would have been glad to hear his music played with such obvious commitment.

In all, this was a most attractive concert, featuring a nicely balanced choice of works spanning three centuries.

The next concert in this series will be given by John Paul Ekins (piano) on Wednesday, January 15, 2014.

Denis McCaldin