First read the order of service!
Now you can imagine how the new Coffee Concert launch exploded into life. We were blitzed by Bartok 4 from a standing start as the Doric turned the tables on us with imaginative but calculating reverse concert planning.
Instead of an orthodox and commonplace academic chronological tour through four composers’ work, they turned the journey on its head with tremendous effect. To have done so at the standard start time of 11am in a normal Coffee Concert would for some audiences have been substituting cough medicine for cappuccino. But the risk and impact was big enough at 7.30pm after a day in the workplace or, in the case of a number of students present under the Cavatina Scheme, under the cosh of lectures or essay writing.
The students I sat with were staggered at the whole experience and so were a great many hardened and grizzled chamber music fans, particularly string quartet ones regular at these concerts. Doric’s purpose was to create alternative perspectives and different lights on the paintings exhibited.
Bartok’s dissonance and jagged rhythms, and contrasting moods, fell on unploughed and unfertilized soil. No chance of preparation first with anything smoother or more familiar – as can happen at the 11ams if the curtain-raiser comes from the 18th or 19th century and produces inevitably a more relaxing listen.
So Bartok blasted open listening brains unanaesthetised by any music played ahead of it. The experience was vivid and deeply penetrating. And next came no pill-sweetening sugar, but the fresh challenge of Debussy’s maverick sole contribution to the quartet medium, something radiantly and elusively uncomparable.
The interval arrived with us in an emotional and cerebral ambience few of us must have felt before – many gladly. The second half brought the great unfinished Schubert quartet’s first movement: something more like balm, even if its music lurches from the disturbed to the blissful.
The Doric took no prisoners with their stinging sforzandi in the exposition and recapitulation, nor in their sword-slicing final chords, therefore forcing to our recall snatches of the spitting electrical Bartokian atmosphere – although seen now in retrospect instead of the anticipation one would sense during a conventionally-ordered performing sequence.
Finally, there came the father of the quartet, its inventor, its master, Haydn. His popular Lark Quartet not as the opener, like an old friend yet again greeting us at the concert door, but, as Doric cellist and master of ceremonies John Myerscough told we audience, as “The King”. From this angle, at the end of this very different musical expedition, Haydn’s language and musical shaping assumed even greater significance, lucidity, acuity of wit, communicative power and profundity, and thus stature. And to drive home the point and sustain the sense of revelation, the Doric’s encore gave us more Haydn: the slow movement of variations in B major from Quartet No 2 in the same instrumentally enriched Opus 64.
The Doric were in conventional black tie. This wasn’t outwardly a fruity ensemble in different coloured jackets, shirts or shoes already flouting expectations by throwing the chess piece into the air and seeing where they landed. But after the interval, maybe in anticipation of Haydn’s Opus 64 showcases for the first fiddle, leader Alex Redington did shed his jacket and loosen his tie for the job at hand.
In the Doric’s assertively physical Bartok, both human and violin-bow horse hair flew in the outer movements, magic abounded in his 1928 take on a Mendelssohn nocturnal scherzo in the second movement and, in the fourth, images and surrealism emerged and then dematerialised. The cello unsettled us in the probing central slow movement and the ceaselessly dancing finale completed its breathless, unremitting triumph over any apprehension we may have felt at the experience of being served with Bartok first.
Their Debussy was beautiful in its effect-making, and Hélène Clément’s viola was like a singing ghost in the dream-like third movement.
The audience sat in the round but without any raised staging of the performers. The vibrance of the Doric’s lower-end sound was striking. The secret lay less in the fact that John Myerscough’s cello pin was exploiting the responsive Corn Exchange floorboards than in his extensive use of open strings for maximum frequent resonance. Responding to my spoken observation of this to him, he recalled a tutor who once pointed out to him that the German term for unfingered strings is not open strings but ‘Empty strings’ – reflected in their string players’ tendency to finger whenever possible.
Contrary to Myerscough’s style.
Another example of the Doric doing things differently.