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Are we in a golden era of the string quartet concert? I can’t speak for nationwide but the Brighton Coffee Concerts sound and taste even better than they smell at 11 o’clock in the morning. It’s not just the ever soaring quality of the younger quartets’ playing. It’s what they choose to programme, then deliver.
Mind you, this audience has for the last few years been one to relish for these specialist musicians. These listeners are ready for any of the standard 20th Century repertory because – eg. Britten, Janacek, Tippett, Bartok – they now love the adventure of the tests this music sets, and are fully ready to be shaken out of their 11.25am reverie.
Especially if following some Haydn, who seems almost as essential on the coffee table as warm apricot croissants. Add some final Mendelssohn and the invigoration is complete to be able to get up afterwards and get peeling the potatoes for lunch. I’d like to imagine a future when this kind of Sunday morning goes on all over the place.
And totally unlamented to me are the days when string quartets took the stage like four male soldiers in evening dress, bowed, flicked back their tails, sat, played, rose, bowed, left the stage and left the building. Some did so ostentatiously, others studiously, rarely did many quartets smile, we were frozen in rarified, hallowed territory not to be violated.
But today’s warm Coffee Concerts have turned such on-stage conduct into almost rudeness, arrogance, even an ignorance. On come Doric String Quartet, all dressed differently, two members female, all ready for business, yes . . . but stopping to say hello and more than pass the day with you about the musical expedition they are about to share with you.
John Myerscough, blue two-piece suit, dark half-Windsor knotted tie, fractionally skewiff, could be dropping in on his way to a Bistro lunch. Cheerily semi-formal, smiling his wry smile, he makes crucial contact with us on behalf of the four – before a note is played, not some time later when the pressure might be off the performers.
We realise there is a degree of relaxation on stage. We find out about the three pieces served up and immediately cease to be spectators but involved in what will follow. Liberated, we are welcomed on board ship and together we and the musicians set sail.
Lead fiddle Alex Redington, full-bearded, is in similar blue-coloured three-piece suit but has left his tie and jacket in the dressing room. His waistcoat is stylishly round-fronted with low buttons. Both men wear patent leather shoes. Violist Hélène Clément is in a jade green jumpsuit and yellow heels. Is she going straight on afterwards to a sassy lunch somewhere?
But who is this on 2nd violin? John has kept her secret! A lace-shouldered, full-length flowing purple dress. Long dark hair opposite Hélène’s long blonde. Ying Xue has replaced Jonathan Stone – and, she tells me afterwards only in October. You’d never realise it was that recent. Something seamless has happened.
“I was shocked how easy it was, and our musical ideas are similar,” she comments. She’s Chinese but hails from Parker, USA, spent 12 years studying and performing in Boston, then a period in UK with Artemis Quartet. “We shared the same mentor in Lubeck, Germany. It was Heime Műller.”
Did she recall when she wanted to become a quartet player. “Yes, I remember the first time. I was 12 and I heard a Borodin quartet and also an arrangement of some Chinese music. The genre spoke to me right away.”
John Myerscough said, “Jonathan going was very amicable. He’s now playing lots of different things but getting more time with his family.”
Hair – human and horse – flew on stage during the astonishing force of nature that seems the Bartok Fifth Quartet. In the music’s first movement, the Dorics were vehemently quarrelling then unifying and tackling crises head-on. The world has dreamy musical nocturnes, it has Mozart’s sociable Little Night Music serenade. But then it has Bartok’s own characteristic night music, which in this quartet’s second and fourth movements inhabits the seriously unsocial hours. The intensity the Dorics conveyed seemed descriptive of the physical and the mental, of the human and the natural world.
Their first nocturne was inquisitive, with a muttering inquest at the end. Their second had drama and irony, panic and tumult, arriving at a dubious peace. Both immensely stimulating, surprising and exciting to the ordinary observer and, no doubt, graphically haunting to the insomniac.
The wild finale suddenly brings a seeming mickey-take of a bland classical melody to a rustic down-home accompaniment, which Bartok instructs to be played ‘with indifference’. This was one of the gifts the Dorics brought to Brighton in this programme. A second example of musical humour, following that which closed the Haydn Bb Opus 33 Quartet.
‘One of Haydn’s naughtiest jokes,’ was Myerscough’s promise in his morning’s introduction. I’ll not sow a spoiler or you’ll not get the fun’s full value on your first hearing. But the joke was lost on Hans Keller, the musicological father figure of 20th Century string quartet philosophy and dogma in those days of quartets behaving like silent military units.
It caused him to write off as unworthy this entire fourth quartet of the six in Opus 33. The Dorics are among the few quartets daring to free it from that dungeon. They had me chuckling well before that final joke, when laughs around the audience rewarded their generous comedic musicianship. There were cheers at the close, seconds later, and this tone of audience reciprocation lasted the rest of the concert. Mainly because Myerscough had bothered to say ‘good morning’.
Their last Coffee Concert in September 2016, the Doric’s played their Haydn (The ‘Lark’) last of all. It was deliberate back-to-front programming with Bartok No 4 kicking off proceedings, again with a Myerscough introduction. This Haydn Bb quartet could have rounded off the whole concert with a guffawing pay-off. But this group admirably avoid the obvious.
Who knows if we shall have them back? Fully International and into a ninth year of their Chandos contract, their searching interpretations are deepening the market of available recordings and, like the Elias Quartet, and maybe The Heath, one suspects the Dorics may soon be flying beyond the Coffee Concerts orbit.