Doric String Quartet & Roderick Williams at Wigmore Hall – Britten, Korngold and a Peter Maxwell Davies premiere

String Quartet No.1 in A, Op.16
Maxwell Davies
Blake Dreaming (Goodison Quartet No.5) forstring quartet and baritone, Op.304 [World première]
String Quartet No.2 in C, Op.36

Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone (violins), Simon Tandree (viola) & John Myerscough (cello)]

Roderick Williams (baritone)

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 30 April, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Doric Quartet. Photograph: doricstringquartet.comThis recital showed just why the Doric Quartet has recently been attracting so much praise. From the technical standpoint the players are superb, but, beyond that, they blend together as though of one mind – the touchstone of any such group.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s First String Quartet (1921-23) is a very attractive (and not often heard) piece, inhabiting the soundworlds of Brahms, Mahler and early Schoenberg. The Allegro molto was here full of urgency and passion, and as the movement developed – tranquil and meltingly yearning as well as arresting with double- and triple-stopping – the playing was beautifully focused and richly coloured. The players, as directed, were highly expressive in the Adagio, whose rocking melody was touchingly done; and the capricious and humorous aspects of the lively Intermezzo were vividly caught. The material of the finale is less convincing, alternating as it does between discursive and animated episodes to no great effect. Assuredly, though, the quality of the playing was an unmitigated delight.

Nicholas and Judith Goodison’s commissions for string quartets with voice have resulted in five works so far: one each from Gordon Kerry, Julian Philips, Joseph Phibbs, and Huw Watkins – and now a 10-minute piece by Peter Maxwell Davies. Commissioned to write a work that “uses the voice as an extra instrument, without a text”, the composer includes part of a line from William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” – “The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea … are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man”. The composer sees these words as the “image” upon which both voice and quartet meditate.

The work begins with the baritone speaking – rather more than singing – the text up to the words “stormy sea”. The ‘dreaming’ now commences, in lyrical, long-drawn phrases from the quartet, which – accompanied by the baritone’s vocalise – gradually rise to a peak of intensity. The tempo slows, the players moving into a higher register, and then the vocalise resumes, more freely now, and with greater urgency. The baritone then utters the remainder of the text, with a measure of added intensity to suggest the dichotomy between “eternity” and “eye of man”. The second ‘dreaming’ episode is again lyrical, with pizzicatos from cello and viola to the fore. The vocalise is at a higher pitch now, the quartet’s contribution becoming more impassioned, with more prominent pizzicatos. Finally the baritone hums the work to a somnolent close. Roderick Williams and the Doric Quartet clearly gave their best to the piece.

In their playing of the arching phrase that so affectingly opens Britten’s String Quartet No.1, the Doric Quartet eschewed excessive emotion, and this restraint made the surge into the Allegro calmo all the more effective. The lyricism, drama, and energy that pervade the movement were expressively conveyed, inner parts both clear and commingling to perfection. The players embarked on the Vivace with real attack and perfectly caught the restlessness and extraordinary eeriness of the movement. The desolation of the long ‘Chacony’ was palpable, but individual voices (Alex Redington’s violin in particular) provided welcome moments of respite. And, once again, the interaction between the players was remarkable.

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