The Dorics and BB: they’ve done it again. Three years on from their Benjamin Britten survey of music for string quartet – a red-letter weekend if ever there was one – the fab four returned to Snape Maltings, this time in the context of the 2022 Aldeburgh Festival, to give Béla Bartók the completist treatment. The marketing was odd, effectively one long concert sold as three shorter ones, but with a couple of lengthy intervals the players still completed their feat in a little over five hours. Not once did they falter.

The Doric String Quartet
© Britten Pears Arts

The extant quartets were composed after several juvenile efforts in the form and before the composer’s death cheated the world of a commissioned seventh. Yet, in a strange way, what we have is the perfect sequence: six profound essays that together apostrophise Bartók’s life and career. The thread they share is an aversion to tunes for tunes’ sake. Melody came easily to the Hungarian composer (cf. the Second Violin Concerto, the Third Piano Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra) but he reserved the quartet form for his most elevated utterances. That is why they reward close acquaintance, and why these performances by the Doric String Quartet were revelatory.

The playing was homogeneous in the best sense. Bartók wrote for 16 strings rather than four players, hence his use of the second violin as an equal to the first, and the Doric sound was an ideal fit for such an approach. The players’ ensemble instincts were more cohesive and their colours more subtly shaded than some glitzier accounts. Their playing was constantly alert to the music’s variety and variegation, from the astonishing first movement of no. 1 with its melancholy, Berg-esque opening that gave way to music redolent of a bird in flight as Alex Redington’s first violin soared over a cratered landscape, through to the Adagio of no. 6 where a potentially affecting melody played on John Myerscough’s eloquent cello was beautifully undercut by his colleagues’ fiercely unsentimental harmonies.

The First Quartet’s long, sinewy finale, at first glance a tangle of ideas yet with substance and method at its core, gave way to a more traditionally structured no. 2 in a reading marked by exquisite phrasing and a mellow ensemble. The opening movement sounded practically Classical; the second, though, was given an abrasive energy in keeping with its folk-inspired material.

The Doric String Quartet
© Britten Pears Arts

No. 3 was characterised by concentrated, dancing rhythms, spare harmonic effects in the middle movement and gorgeously indulgent portamenti like whipped cream on a summer pudding. The players’ decisive, uniformly voiced dynamic hairpins were hair-raising. No. 4 was a whirlwind of musical ideas that include a lyrical solo passage for cello, a quick-as-a-lick Allegro pizzicato and a finale reminiscent of Pacific 231, but with automobiles.

The final concert was the longest of the three, with the last pair of quartets running half an hour apiece. No. 5 is the crowd-pleaser: five accessible and entertaining movements with a will-o’-the-wisp Scherzo at their centre and a foot-stomping Finale. Thence to the Sixth (1939): a work that anticipated a world on the threshold of war. It is ominous but never bleak. The musicians were fuelled as much by the inspiration of a composer who seemed finally to have reconciled himself to melody as by their own adrenalin. Never were five stars more comprehensively earned.

*****