By Tom Huizenga
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 6:18 PM
How does one explain the seemingly never-ending supply of first-rate string quartet ensembles, like Britain's Doric String Quartet, which made its Library of Congress debut Friday night?
Perhaps it's because the genre has remained vital and innovative over the centuries, unlike the symphony and concerto, which have had fallow periods. It all begins with the string quartet's virtual creator, Joseph Haydn, whose Quartet Op. 20, No. 6 (1772) opened the concert. This early, conservative quartet may not be Haydn's most memorable, yet it was a transparent introduction to the young Dorics on their first U.S. tour. The group projects a sweet, finely blended tone, faultlessly deployed in Haydn's slow movement, where first violinist Alex Redington found subtle colors to embellish a wistful little melody differently each time it returned.
Next was a sophisticated performance of Erich Korngold's Quartet No. 3 - a pleasing yet puzzling work. The scherzo is refreshingly acerbic, but in its center, Korngold inserted a saccharine tune from one of his Hollywood film scores. It's like finding a dollop of whipped cream on your plate of sushi. But the Sostenuto (also cinematically recycled) is a marvel of slowly shifting hues.
Anton Webern's Quartet, Op. 28, only eight minutes long, is musical haiku. Each note - whether a piercing pizzicato or swift slide - is supremely important. The Dorics sculpted each with muscle and subtlety.
At the evening's end, though, not even the talented Dorics could jump-start Schumann's String Quartet No. 2, which doesn't give up its few charms easily.