Let’s postulate that the avid, flexible, and resourceful foursome we heard Saturday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series takes its orders from composers rather than adopting a uniform all-purpose style. Thus, we imagined a Corinthian Quartet’s Beethoven, an Ionic Quartet’s Haydn and a Composite Quartet’s Bridge. The players had adopted the qualities of their namesake Doric order in earlier-heard Purcell Fantasias.
The quartet of many names dug in aggressively for Beethoven, observed witty and clear-eared restraint in nearly vibrato-less Haydn, and broadened into throbbingly ripe realms for “Franck” Bridge’s early Piano Quintet. Yet in all its guises, the ensemble delighted in whispering pianissimos that drew the listener in.
The very welcome Doric String Quartet, first introduced to a Boston audience at the Harvard Musical Association in 2016, subsequently graduated from its 2018 Celebrity Series Emerging Artist outing to full-blown Jordan Hall celebrity status…this time with the celebrated young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who “emerged” for the Celebrity Series in 2013 and has subsequently played for the Gardner, the BSO, and the Harvard Musical Association.
Abruptness, misdirection, and lyric repose seemed to be the concert bywords in all the works we heard, beginning in Beethoven’s middle-period Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 “Serioso.” Connor Buckley, “Artist, Arts Administrator, and Information Professional,” and Celebrity Series annotator wrote that “The first movement, marked by Beethoven’s trademark suddenness throughout, feeling like a tangled ball of circuitous themes…forms the thesis statement for the entire piece, marking its ambition to drastically compress what is expected in a string quartet.”
Taking Beethoven’s orders and as required by the composer’s bipolarity, the players adopted an often-gritty tone, but their vehemence kept yielding to sweetness, especially from the refined and relaxed first violin Alex Redington. Often, outgoing cellist John Myerscough would answer the first’s initial statements with pleading affirmations. The second movement, despite being an allegretto, began with four stately downer bars from the cello, introducing Beethoven the tragedian in the Doric’s patient telling. The enlargement of that sentiment by the entire quartet gave us a deep repose, especially in its rather slow tempo. It came across as a conversation among emotionally enlightened intellectuals. A diminuendo to pppp floated in the silent, expectant hall as if from a distant planet. As the group went on attaca to the pseudo scherzo third movement, togetherness with shifting dominance prevailed, such that each voice emphatically told in its turn. Repose, and reflection ensued before an accelerando close. The Finale also often misdirected our expectations; stately moments devolved into bubbling-over trio portions, and the fleet if evanescent finish asked just how seriously we were meant to take the Serioso.
Compact, dense, uncompromising and relentless qualities join under the banner of Serioso. Yet Beethoven was keenly aware of his manipulative powers and knew that just as he transfixed his listener in the rapture of despair, he could shatter the mood by turning on a dime. And so he concludes his great Serioso quartet: at the very end of this tense, nearly continuous quartet, the final bars instantaneously shift into a bright romp, fresh and giddy as spring, oblivious to everything but unrelenting joy. The huge, unresolved weight of the entire quartet evaporates in the last 30 seconds in what might be the greatest musical punch line of all time. Kai Christiansen
Ever the master of surprises, Haydn could seemingly even surprise himself. How else could one explain his writing the almost outré String Quartet in D Major Op. 50 no. 6, The Frog, in the 12-month span in which he also set the decidedly tragic last words of Christ in seven slow movements? Opus 50 begins with a question, not the “Is it True” that Mendelssohn asked in his op. 13 quartet, but rather, why am I starting a D major work in E? The many deceptive cadences, modulations, and reversals that follow require real engagement from dedicated advocates to achieve coherence. The Doric certainly did; this is a quartet which takes its Haydn seriously, even when he is seriously comic, too seriously to relegate him to the warmup position. They calmed their vibrato and found an elegant clarity perfect for this inventor of the genre, producing something of a sonic golden mean. Haydn gave the first violin less dominance than in many of his 68 quartets, resulting in some wonderful interplay as the spotlight found each player. Violist Hélène Clément, practically levitating, and showing enough confidence in her projection never to turn out, often partnered with the lustrous second violin of Ying Xue. Redington, of course, had solo exposures with revealing form and stately inner meaning, whether winking at the top of his fingerboard or executing bariolage* with incredible lightness. The Frog ended with a theatrical collective sigh.
Frank Bridge’s early Piano Quintet in D Minor does not sound very British, nor does it anticipate Bridge’s mentee Benjamin Britten to any degree. Rather it imbibed deeply in the overwrought utterances of Franck and Chausson, especially the latter’s Concerto for Piano Violin and String Quartet. Moments also evoke Ravel and Chopin. Cunningly churning yet warmly unsettled in the manner of wheels within wheels, it achieved almost orchestral, oceanic weight in the quartet’s broadened pallet with prime mover pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. The three movements erupted and slashed, as Grosvenor tolled great chords and plied nocturnal delicacies with boldness and sensitivity. Over muted strings, Grosvenor began, the very innig second movement with quiet octaves and more nocturnish rhapsodizing before a growing expressionism set in. Before long, we heard a fairy scherzo which turned into something heavier — a relentless forbidden pleasure. Myerscough bigly sold the tragic cello aria, apparently based on Chaplin’s “Smile” with a trembling upper lip, smiling through tears. The tune moved upward and grew into an irrepressible conflagration. Later, through the entangling web of themes and mood swings, a destination heaved into sight, and the odyssey delivered us, comfortably sated, to a safe harbor with a grateful crowd cheering the successful navigation.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
* “Bariolage” is a French word for a bowing technique that involves rapid changing of strings, often between open strings and “stopped” strings—that is, strings with the fingers down. The effect, which produces a rapid flurry of notes, is used in a great variety of music, from Bach to bluegrass fiddle and beyond. Laurie Niles, Strings magazine