The Dover String Quartet opened the Flager Museum Music Series on Jan. 10 with a bright, intense sound that was refreshing, lean and passionate.
Founded in 2008 by four young graduates of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, they were catapulted to international fame with their stunning sweep of Canada’s Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013. Subsequently they have won four additional prestigious first prizes. At present the Dover is the quartet-in-residence at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.
The bright sound that distinguished this program arrived with the first bars of the Mozart String Quartet No. 23 (in F, K. 590), and let us know we were in for some very accomplished playing. The quartet is known as the Prussian because Mozart had met the new king of Prussia, who showed a strong predilection for music and was himself a proficient cellist. Leaving Berlin to return to Vienna, Mozart was overjoyed to have a commission for six quartets from the young king and naturally he composed strong parts for the cello.
Written in 1790, the Prussian is one of only three Mozart was able to complete before his death at 35 the following year. Using electronic tablets to display their music, the quartet attacked the Allegro moderato first movement with admirable perfection. The cello took a leading role in setting forth the main theme, played nicely by Camden Shaw. The other instrumentalists have strong solo parts and as a body they displayed keen discipline in the difficult inner fugue’s development.
Next came the Andante, an emotional movement described by Alfred Einstein as “one of the most sensitive in the whole literature of chamber music, seeming to mingle bliss and sorrow.” The solo violin, exquisitely played by Joel Link, soared above the others with a pure ethereal singing tone. It was then beautifully repeated by the second violin of Bryan Lee and accompanied by sensitive viola playing by Milena Pajaro-Van De Stadt, while the cello sawed away, delicately in a lower register. It is a rapturous movement ending on a single drawn-out note.
The contrasting light and shade of the Minuet, marked Allegretto, was amazing to hear. Seven-bar phrases are contrasted with equally fine five-bar phrases in the middle section. Unusually inventive music shows Mozart’s genius as we enter the last movement, Allegro. It is busy work for the quartet with runs galore for everyone as the drama in the music unfolds. Magnificent playing rivets our attention and like buzzing honey bees seeking their hive, the music comes to a sudden end.
Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 2 (in G, Op. 18, No. 2) came after a short break. Written in 1800, it is dedicated to the Bohemian Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz. He was an accomplished violinist and cellist and had grand palaces in Prague and Vienna, maintaining a complete musical establishment of full orchestra and chorus. Best of all, when he was 20, he influenced two other young friends, Archduke Rudolph of Austria and Prince Ferdinand Kinsky, to join together in assuring Beethoven of a generous income for the rest of his life, enabling the 28-year-old composer to concentrate only on composition.
The G major Quartet is one of the six quartets in Beethoven’s Op. 18, his first efforts in the genre. Immediately we recognize the composer’s genius. It burns very brightly at first, developing into a richly varied and happy work overflowing with musical ideas. The Dover’s playing and consistency of tone was nicely balanced.
The Allegro ends with a sweet five-note “Amen.” The lengthy Adagio cantabile begins with a serene but serious theme, seemingly of a meandering nature. One critic in the past, William Youngren, described it as laboriously ornamented. Another, Arthur Cohn, reflected that he saw in it the future mature Beethoven of later works. I would not quibble with either opinion.
The third movement, marked Adagio, opens with a lovely cello solo. This scherzo is modeled after the quartets of Haydn and Mozart with a forceful dramatic quality characteristic of Beethoven in its mood changes. The Dover made it sound heavenly.
The fourth and last movement opens at lightning speed. The Dover’s vibrant playing brought out the mystery of the ever-questing Beethoven as he develops each tune in many different ways: contrasting themes are recalled with different key relationships. The downward three-note arpeggios signal a brooding ending as one last soft-to-loud harmonious crescendo concludes this early work, brilliantly interpreted.
The Dover ended the concert with Bedrich Smetana’s Quartet No. in E minor (From My Life). Written in 1876, more than a year after he had completely lost his hearing, it is a masterpiece in which the composer reflects on his life and tragically, his approaching deafness.
A pleading Slavic motif on the first violin opens the work, repeated brilliantly and with feeling by the viola of Pajaro-Van De Stadt. The Dover’s sound in this movement was almost as strong as a string orchestra playing Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. It is magical stuff, ending with softly plucked strings from the first violin and cello.
A lively polka opens the second movement. At one point, the music is so distant it’s as if Smetana were standing back to one side, observing the revelers. The first violin sings a simple tune out loud giving this section a brilliant ending. A long solo cello opens the Largo sostenuto; this movement is a love song about his first love who became his wife. It intones an air of romanticism as the first violin sings out a soothing melody. In the quiet ending one could have heard a pin drop.
The music of the last movement opens on a cheerful, hopeful note. It soars upward constantly and is so refreshing in its joyful approach, until the famous passage toward the end in which Smetana has the first violin imitate the whistling sound of his tinnitus. It’s a remarkable piece, and it was brilliantly played by this outstanding young string quartet.
The next performance in the Flagler series features the San Francisco-based Telegraph Quartet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24. The program includes music by Dvorak, Webern, Haydn and Schumann. Tickets (with champagne reception) are $70; for more information call 655-2833 or visit this link on the Flagler Museum site.