What matters most
As the Doric String Quartet releases the first installment of its Beethoven String Quartet cycle for Chandos, we talk to its viola player Hélène Clément about how the group gets to the essence of the works and the lesson she’d like to pass to young quartet players
Why have you chosen to record a Beethoven cycle now?
You can’t put off recording a Beethoven cycle forever, because you will never feel ready. This feels like the right moment to start, leading up to a Wigmore cycle in 2026, which gives it a good timeframe.
How do you prepare for recordings?
We always make sure that we play the pieces we’re going to record in concert a lot. It’s so important to live and grow with them. The live experience makes you take risks and allows you to feel different things in different acoustics. The pieces we’ve recorded so far have been with us for a very long time and we’ve gone back to explore them further. That’s basically the process.
How do you rehearse?
Our basic approach is to play through the score very slowly so we can hear what’s there, before we make any decisions – to really listen and discover it as a group. That process shapes our sound, the tonalities, the tension and release, which then define our flexibility and freedom. Performing then comes as second nature. This is also how we keep our unity as a group.
How do you find the balance of being respectful of historical performance practice but finding the sound you want?
We try to be extremely respectful of the score, but also really to bring it to life. This is why we keep playing these pieces over and over again: to infuse them with our own energy. The danger is being so scared of the score that the playing becomes restrained and stale, and it ends up sounding like the music died a long time ago.
In terms of historic playing, with the Beethoven cycle, we play some of the quartets with Classical transitional bows and some with modern ones. With the later quartets we tend to play with modern bows because they ask for an almost symphonic-like quality at times, and richer sounds, whereas in the earlier works we want more clarity and lightness. This was flexible at the time, though – people used all sorts of bow shapes, exploring at different paces depending on which country they were in, and it isn’t clear cut when people used which bows. There’s a wonderful freedom in discovering the sound we want to express and then finding the right tool for it, instead of being reined in by what we think the tools should be.
What are you trying to achieve in the studio?
We’ve played these pieces so often in concert that they have grown and matured, so we come in with a clear idea of the structure and of what want to achieve. If you are still diving into details when you start recording, you might lose the sense of the whole that you get in a concert. That’s why we perform them as much as possible before we record.
The range in Beethoven’s quartets is huge. Some of them are gigantic and larger than life, while others have so much humour and lightness. We try to find both the epic side, sounding almost like an orchestra, but also the more fragile, tender aspects, as well as the humour – he can be really cheeky. We try to express all of it and to make it very human.
We also want our sound to be extremely alive and present, so the recording equipment is very close to us. The listener hears it as if they are within the quartet. It’s clear and raw – not too prettified.
We put a lot of emphasis on having a good atmosphere during the recording process. There is no stress that shouldn’t be there, no tension. The four of us feel extremely supported by each other, which means we can expand what we’ve been doing in concert without any kind of restraint.
We feel extremely lucky that Chandos has offered us so many recording opportunities. Sound engineer Jonathan Cooper knows us very well, so in the recording process we have a sound world we trust. Potton Hall feels like a second home: we take our snacks and slippers and set up camp, and feel we can give everything. It’s the time in our quartet life that we give the most, because the conditions are so ideal.
What do you love about playing Beethoven?
What I love most is the otherworldliness and that it’s so much bigger than us. We do recording sessions of three days in a row and we find that throwing yourself at Beethoven again and again brings you to the raw essence of it – what matters the most. It also brings the four of us into our most vulnerable selves because it’s so demanding physically. It asks so much that you reach a point where there is no superficiality, only the very core. That is life-changing. You won’t find any pianist or string quartet player who has gone through a Beethoven cycle without having their life changed in some way.
What do you notice about how audiences respond?
Beethoven demands something special from the listener – an extremely active kind of listening. Audiences love being challenged into being active. They don’t always know that in advance, but once you bring it to them it’s great to see their response.
What do you tell students about playing Beethoven?
In general – not only with Beethoven – the main thing about string quartet playing is to listen to the harmony. The score will always show the way. Young groups often come into a rehearsal full of ideas and things to try. Sometimes it comes from one person’s voice or views on how it should be. It’s easy to follow those ideas without knowing what’s underneath. It’s like putting windows into a house without building foundations or putting on make-up before taking a shower. The patience of playing slowly allows groups so much more freedom.
What advice do you give young viola players about playing Beethoven quartets?
I’d love to tell every violist who plays chamber music that when people say they can’t hear the viola, it’s easy to play louder, but that’s the most dangerous thing to do. It supresses any other way of expression. If we have an individual voice and say something specific, it will come through: there are some ways to articulate more and play more clearly, and the whole ensemble can shape towards the viola voice. This is one of the subtleties of playing viola in a chamber group. The others need to adjust, but the viola doesn’t need to be heard at all times, no matter what. That idea comes from a school of playing that is about balancing every voice so that whenever someone has the tune they play louder. Great quartets don’t need to do that. Playing loudly whenever you have something important doesn’t work. If you whisper something interesting, people will listen to it.
How have you developed as a group over time?
Being in a quartet is a constant exploration. As human beings, we’ve been through many good times as well as hardships, and to have the quartet as a stable rock, always supportive, has meant a lot. These life experiences have also changed our playing in subtle ways.
The most important thing about a string quartet is that it is a commitment. That is how it becomes special. Four people decide fully to commit to the group and as a result end up knowing each other’s playing so well that they reach another dimension of expression. It is the commitment that allows us to dive even deeper.
What have you learnt about working as a team?
I’ve learnt to trust my colleagues and what they bring – to enjoy and respond to that, without trying to be in control. I’ve also learnt that it’s better to search longer and have a later result than to be too sure, too early. That way you cut yourself off from wonderful possibilities musically.
How did you come to play Benjamin Britten’s viola, made by Francesco Guissani in 1843?
I was playing a modern viola by Stephan von Baehr, which I loved without reservation. The quartet was playing a lot of Britten and we were about to record Britten’s three string quartets when Britten Pears Arts approached me and offered me to play Britten’s own viola for the recording. I was reluctant because I was happy with my own, but said I’d try it for a couple of hours. I played it for five minutes and realised how amazing it was. It has a unique, personal sound and suits my own expression. It doesn’t try to be extremely loud or round, but comes through by its own quality rather than power.
The first volume of the Doric String Quartet’s Beethoven cycle features Quartets op.18 nos.1 & 6, op.59 no.1, op.95 and op.127, and comes out on Chandos on 3 November.
Wigmore Hall – 29 December