The Dover Quartet started all of eight years ago with four Curtis undergraduate students: violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. (I mention their names as this was inadvertently left out of the program. Their bios may be found here.) Local chamber music enthusiasts may recall their performance in Chamber Music Raleigh's Master Series last February. They returned to the area with a Duke Performances concert at Baldwin Auditorium on Saturday September 24, to a packed house.
Word has spread quickly about this group since it first gained attention in Banff in 2013 by sweeping all the available awards at the International String Quartet Competition. They have had a string of prizes since then, and clearly have what it takes to appeal to judges and audiences. (Not only are the musicians young – the viola was made in 2004, and the cello in 2010.) Currently the Dover Quartet is in residence at Northwestern University.
The first work on the program was Mozart's String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat, K. 589. This was written in 1790 for Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, much like the Haydn quartet that opened the Ciompi season last weekend. This is an extraordinary work and worthy of close listening. The performance showed the accurate intonation and clear tone characteristic of the Dover Quartet to advantage.
The second piece, "Pale Blue Dot" was a new quartet by David Ludwig (born in 1974), first performed in 2014 and written for the Dover Quartet. The composer's extensive statement is entirely about the Voyager I spacecraft, now 9.5 billion miles from Earth, with only a sentence at the end saying that this was the inspiration for the piece. One rather wishes that the composer had taken the opportunity to refer to the music; certainly anyone listening to the quartet without the program notes would have no idea that it referred to any specific programmatic idea. The title comes from the famous photograph taken in 1990 by Voyager I showing the Earth from a distance of six billion miles, barely filling a single pixel. The music started with just the cellist on stage, shortly joined by the others all playing a single pitch. There followed music in the contemporary mode, with col legno on the fingerboard and striking the seats with pencils and such. Convincingly done and with flair, and the audience appreciated it with warm and sustained applause.
After intermission, the Dover Quartet took on Beethoven's String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, with the original Große Fuge as the last movement. This is tough sledding for any quartet, but this one has technique to burn and could handle this challenge. It was fitting to put on the program with "Pale Blue Dot," since Voyager I carried with it a gold-plated disk including 90 minutes of music – the final selection was the Cavatina from this opus 130 quartet.
As with the Mozart, the Dover Quartet handled the first five of the six movements with considerable grace and enthusiasm, and it would be hard for any critic to find any particular flaw. The interpretation was consistent and well considered, and effective. However, to the experienced ear, the youth of this quartet certainly showed for the Große Fuge. (Disclaimer alert: this reviewer has a long history with the Große Fuge, as the dear reader may see here.)
The bright tone of the quartet and clear articulation helped keep the fugue from becoming an awful scrape (as it has been described before), and that was very welcome. While the entire movement was technically accurate in rhythm and pitch, the beat was metronomic – certainly an aid in keeping together in a tough work, but not the mark of a world-class, more experienced quartet. There are passages that demand a flexibility of the beat that was frequently missing, and sorely missed. In addition, some lines that needed to be brought out and heard easily above the others frequently were absorbed into an egalitarian dynamic, which blurred out some very important material. One of the challenges of the dynamics of this piece is that there are extended passages that are entirely fortissimo, and other long passages that are entirely pianissimo. It is important to play within those limits to keep the music interesting. Sometimes that was not the case here.
The youth of the quartet served it well in performing all the way to the end of a demanding concert with great energy and enthusiasm. The audience responded in kind with a heartfelt standing ovation. Let us hope that the Dover Quartet can continue another twenty years or more, which could give it the kind of depth and maturity that would make it one of the historically great quartets.