Music at Paxton, Paxton House, Berwickshire
The Dudok Quartet Amsterdam made an interesting point when introducing themselves to this Music at Paxton audience. Noted for their progressive approach to string quartet performance, cellist David Faber explained that the ensemble’s artistic policy is not so much to limit itself to pure string quartet music per se, but rather to play music that befits a string quartet.
What that does is to free them from the confines of a purpose-built repertoire “invented” in the mid-18th century, most notably by Haydn, and instead let them utilise a wider spread of music from further back in time transcribed for the genre. So this opening festival programme began with a surprise: a miscellany of pre-Baroque miniatures dating from between 1200 and 1600, all examples of vocal music recast for strings.
We weren’t actually expecting any of this, the advertised Piatti Quartet having cancelled last-minute due to travel issues, but swiftly replaced by the young Dutch players who had hot-footed it from Yorkshire’s Ryedale Festival. Any disappointment gave way instantly to revelation.
That said, the bulk of the Dudok’s programme was mainstream, the clean textures of Mozart’s final Prussian Quartet dominating the opening half, Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet filling the post-interval slot with a fulsome flood of Russian Romanticism. In a further gesture of originality, the Quartet applied a series of differently-styled bows reflecting the relevant musical periods: Baroque bows for the early music, a later linear design for Classical Mozart, and modern design for the Tchaikovsky. There was certainly a distinctiveness in the results, but whether that was actually down to the bows is a moot question.
Suffice to say, overall, that an intriguing and generally lively programme was also one of mixed success.
It all began with a buzz, an arrangement of Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes whose austere 12th century primitivism translated arrestingly into something resembling a belligerent pre-echo of Bela Bartok-meets-Steve Reich – a form of rustically-charge minimalism, considerably more gutsy than the version of this piece once favoured by the Kronos Quartet.
Then, with “just intonation” principles applied to Machaut’s Kyrie (from his Messe de Notre Dame), the resultant tuning distortions played mischief with our modern-day sensitivities, fascinating in one sense, grotesque in another. And finally, where Gesualdo’s music generally comes with in-built futuristic dissonance, his madrigal Deh come invan sospiro, in this string version, and for all its incongruous harmonic shifts, seemed strangely emasculated.
No such quibbles with the ensuing Mozart, granting the first genuine opportunity for Dudok to show their real worth. This was a stylish performance that pitted 18th century Viennese grace and charm against the growing maturity of Mozart’s quartet writing at this late stage in his short life. Now and again, its focus dimmed and details were scurried over, particularly the inner textures, but on the whole there was a joyousness, daringly picturesque at times.
Tchaikovsky’s Quartet, with its sublime and funereal slow movement, transported us to more heated realms of expression, which the ensemble responded to vigorously, if occasionally short on full-blooded passion and complete rhythmic unanimity. Where they consistently excelled was in capturing the spontaneous thrills that ignite the frenetic scherzo and distantly muted Andante.
Prefacing the quartet with a transcription of Lasky’s Aria from the same composer’s Eugene Onegin was tasteful and touching, but probably unnecessary. A Shostakovich encore, on the other hand, was fully justified.
Music at Paxton runs till Sunday 30 July. Full programme details at http://www.musicatpaxton.co.uk