The Palais im Großen Garten in Dresden is an interesting place to perform classical music. It’s completely unlike any other concert venue, with its wholly dilapidated interior projecting an image of lost grandeur. In many ways this is perfect for a classical music concert, especially chamber music. This music was written for the private spaces of the aristocracy, of which the Palais im Großen Garten was once one, and in many ways the current crisis of classical music mirrors the palace in its current state. This once grand institution is fighting against decay and so presenting it in a place which shares its “fall from grace” narrative is an interesting concept.

© Doric String Quartet
© Doric String Quartet

The Doric String Quartet’s concert here was a truly special musical experience. The opening work, Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat, Op. 20 no.1, shone. The quartet played with a resplendent sound, bringing out the sun in the work’s popular name “Sonnequartet” (“Sun Quartet”). The way they phrased in the first movement was so natural and yet so flawless, with no moment even slightly neglected. The second movement was light and playful, each member of the quartet playing with a sense of fun and energy. The slow movement was full of emotion, though never sentimental, and the control of vibrato, and of the movement’s sense of tension and release was masterful. The finale was again full of wit, the players enjoying all the intricate interplay and syncopations.

After the Haydn, the quartet performed Eclipse by the contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean, a tone poem inspired by the Tampa affair in 2001. The work juxtaposes the fragile calm of humanity’s desire to do good with the turbulence of the political motivations which obscure people’s ability to see the humanity of a politicised other. This work contrasted totally with the Haydn, and with it we entered a completely new soundworld, and the quartet transformed their sound accordingly. The attention to detail, the cleanness of the technical execution, and the precision of intonation were all still there, but the bright and warm colours of the Haydn were no more, replaced with a cold but expressive purity, the perfect match for Dean’s music. The quartet has clearly lived and breathed this music, and is a match for this complex work both technically and musically. There’s no sense of the technical difficulty of the work, only the instability of good in the face of evil.

The last item of the programme was Dvořák’s Quartet no. 13 in G major, the last string quartet which he wrote, between his return from the USA and his death in the Czech Republic. The quartet played the extrovert first movement with an incredible intensity of sound and a seemingly endless array of colours. The hymn-like slow movement once again saw them both using vibrato, and holding it back, all adding to the rich Slavic expressivity. The opening freshness, moving through joy before collapsing into sorrowful nostalgia, formed an unbroken narrative thread through the movement, with every member of the quartet united in their expression. The third movement was also noteworthy for the incredible sense of togetherness these players have, with every small moment of rubato perfectly together. In the finale the sad gypsy character heard in the slow movement returned, but subsided quickly into a youthful outburst of joy, again accentuated by the quartet’s incomparable sense of phrasing.

With any great chamber ensemble you see not only the individuals but the whole. The Doric Quartet, all incredible players, allow you to forget the individuals, taking their virtuosity for granted, and see almost exclusively the whole. The way they blend the sound is flawless in every dynamic, in every colour, and in every style, there is a unity which makes the music making seem so effortless. The Doric String Quartet have been described as “one of the finest young string quartets” but I think that’s a little unfair. They are simply one of the finest string quartets.

*****