HAYDN Six String Quartets, Op 64 (Doric Quartet)
As in earlier volumes of their Haydn series, the Doric often dazzle, occasionally frustrate, in these, the last works Haydn composed before he decamped to London. With their unusually fluid approach to tempo and wide spectrum of colour (including a blanched, vibrato-less tone) and dynamics, they never let you take anything for granted. Which is as it should be. No 1 in C, on the surface the plainest, least distinctive work of the set, gains especially from the Doric’s restless imagination, whether in the timing and colouring of the breathtaking shift to D flat in the recapitulation, the spectral C minor Trio, questioning the solid C major certainties of the Minuet, or the sheer variety of expression they bring to the variation third movement. In the finale they can snatch impetuously at the rhythms; but such is their wide-eyed glee here, right down to the sly, throwaway end (the Doric are good at endings), that objections seem churlish.
While the Doric are incapable of a dull or unconsidered phrase, their liberties with tempo and silence can be extreme. A case in point is their faltering opening of No 2, presumably to underline the initial uncertainty of key (a suggestion of D major brusquely contradicted by B minor). But does Haydnesqe deception, here and elsewhere, need this kind of underlining? The colours the Doric distil in this troubled, gawky movement are typically vivid, from the raucous pizzicato twangs at the end of the exposition to the mysteriously remote bare octaves in the development. Yet, listening ‘blind’, few would guess that Haydn marked the movement Allegro spiritoso. For my taste they also exaggerate the contrast between the quasi-Mozartian elegance of the opening of No 3 and the zanily galloping cello – I want to hear this absurd incongruity ‘straight’, at least first time round. Most extreme of all are the tempo fluctuations in the first movement of No 4. The wholesome, Haydnesque tune on the violin’s G string at the end of the exposition is a moment of necessary resolution after the previous harmonic instability. The Doric distend and cosset it, enervatingly, and then outdo even themselves when it returns at the end of the movement.
If they can underestimate the element of robust directness in Haydn’s musical persona – and in the process blur his symmetries – the Doric are consistently illuminating in the slow movements, which rival the Lindsays (ASV, A/01, 4/02) in hushed, musing eloquence and surpass them in beauty of tone. Leader Alex Redington burns into his impassioned zingarese lament at the centre of No 6’s Andante with feverish abandon, while his colleagues’ minute attention to the shaping and balance of the lower parts makes the first-violin-dominated Adagios of Nos 2, 4 and 5 far more than touching accompanied solos. And while there are moments where I wish the Doric would resist their urge to question and deconstruct the music, Nos 5 and 6 are profoundly satisfying throughout, their first movements amply spacious, the minuets unpredictably and wittily timed, and the finales – high-class show-off music if ever there was – breathtaking in their mingled precision, delicacy and whooping high spirits. The recording, as in previous issues, is in the demonstration class while Dean Sutcliffe’s notes, like the playing, are guaranteed to make you hear these quartets with fresh ears.