Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Doric Quartet @ Chelsea Schubert Festival, London

14 September 2007

On Monday I sat in a 150 seat at Covent Garden and found Iphignie en Tauride, for all its admirable intentions, arduous.

On Wednesday, I sat in the stalls at the Peacock Theatre for 5, and guffawed as British Youth Opera provided an uproarious and gloriously human interpretation of Albert Herring.

Those on a budget in London might have to search, but they will find much quality music available on the cheap.

And on Friday, I discovered the Chelsea Schubert Festival, which appeals to those with taste but without cash. This festival of chamber music, founded in 2005 by Andrew O’Brien and Hugo Shirley, has failed to register on the Richter scale so far, and it is perhaps not surprising. Sloane Square is not an ideal location (the Cadogan Hall down the road famously struggles to attract large audiences) and the awkward post-Proms slot is difficult to market.

But I was struck on my first visit on Friday evening. The ticket prices are shockingly reasonable (the most you’ll pay is 15) and the atmosphere is relaxed and personable. The young directors themselves stand at the door selling tickets, crack open bottles of wine in the interval (no extra charge here) and mingle willingly with their guests; you sense that the programme notes were knocked up the hour before. Yet what’s astonishing is not the lack of stuffiness, but rather the range and quality of the music programme.

A Gala Recital from Sally Burgess will end the festival; Katherine Broderick, the shining light of BYO’s Albert Herring, will sing a selection of lieder the day before; recent darling of the BBC Proms, Claire Booth, has already appeared. But I was there on Friday to see the Doric Quartet, by all accounts one of the finest young quartets doing the rounds today. And I would hardly disagree.

If there’s one predictable problem with the church setting, it’s the acoustic, which can blur and smudge the sound. Haydn’s G major quartet (op76 no1) was consequently not texturally refined. But then it was also not bleached. The Doric’s performance was zippy and physical; the pulsating, firecracker dance rhythms emerged majestically; an admirable sense of forward motion was achieved through each player’s firm, confident bowing. At the Allegro‘s conclusion, a police siren blared past the church – how appropriate that noise sounded.

Shostakovich’s Seventh Quartet is the composer’s briefest and most compact, and the Doric melded the three movements into one continuous melodic arch. The Lento was desolate, bleak and desperately elusive, while the four players bowed the dizzying fugue with astoundingly gritty, explosive confidence. Dynamics, shaping and instrumental interplay were spot on, and articulation was clear. I did, however, wish that the group had relished the work’s ambiguous fade-out ending a tad more – the pregnant silence could have lasted twice as long and had double the effect. But Dvork’s A flat quartet (op105), ending the concert, was majestic from first bar to last.

At a time when classical music audiences are said to be dwindling, the Chelsea Schubert Festival perfectly demonstrates how to solve the problem: programme world class artists, keep the ticket prices low and keep the atmosphere informal. I shall certainly return before the season is out.

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