Listening to these quartets was an education of sorts. Recently, I added a video to my YouTube channel listing my Haydn “ideal” quartet cycle, with a different ensemble for each set of quartets (in order by opus number). For Opus 9 I chose the Buchburger Quartet on Brilliant Classics, which I mistaken described as a period instrument group. In fact, they play on modern instruments, only in “period style.” You would be hard pressed to tell the difference. So it is here, and the experience confirmed my original feeling (seconded many years ago by Pinchas Zukerman in a famously scatological interview in Fanfare Magazine) that what matters isn’t so much the technical details of gut strings and curved bows, but rather how the musicians actually play.
Of course, the accuracy of this generalization depends on the instrumental family in question; but given that fact that the basic form and mechanism of the violin has remained fundamentally unchanged since the sixteenth century, it follows that virtually any sound you could make on an old violin you can probably make just as effectively (if perhaps not as easily) on a newer one. All of this is a long way of saying that the Doric String Quartet, like the Buchburgers, has applied the “historically informed” approach to performances on modern instruments. But the comparison ends there, because an agglomeration of period performance mannerisms do not a successful performance make, and whereas the Buchburgers have internalized their modus operandi in order to create an effective and appealing Haydn experience, the Doric String Quartet has not.
The problems extend well beyond the mere question of the group’s fundamentally ugly tone. Consider their ridiculously exaggerated tempos: finales and, occasionally, scherzos (No. 5’s for instance) played so fast as to be rendered featureless. Then there is their revolting habit of italicizing virtually every phrase. Listen to the start of Quartet No. 4, or the hopelessly flabby opening of the B Minor Quartet (No. 1), an approach that negates every impulse towards the necessary forward momentum. Dynamics are relentlessly exaggerated throughout. The trio of the scherzo in the “Joke” Quartet, with its humorous glissandos, takes place in another (much slower) universe entirely.
All of this drives home perhaps the most significant issue: the Op. 33 quartets contain some of Haydn’s most hilarious music, but the Doric has not a shred of comic timing. Their dully predictable application of what they no doubt consider to be “authentic” mannerisms operates completely independently of what the music is trying to express, defeating Haydn’s evident intentions at every turn. Consider the delicious slow movement of Quartet No. 5, an exaggeratedly tragic aria that invites the principal violin to “ham it up” as much as possible. First violinist Alex Redington misses the point entirely, offering thin tone at an excessively slow tempo. Most quartets wreck the ending, rendering Haydn’s last, hilariously dismissive pizzicato “plonk” piano instead of at the indicated forte. The Doric gets the dynamics right, which is admirable, but their timing is still somehow off.
I find it sad that so much ability and thought has gone into creating performances that are so antithetical to the obvious expressive point of Haydn’s music. The Doric’s approach here reduces Haydn’s humane wit and warmth to a formulaic abstraction. This isn’t rocket science. While Haydn’s music may not exactly play itself, all it needs to succeed are some basic musical virtues, allied to a bit of imagination and individual character. Is that really so hard? Judging from these effortful, narcissistic performances, evidently so.