November 11, 2021


Beethoven: String Quartets, Volume 2—Op. 59, Nos. 1-3; Op. 74, “Harp”; Op. 95, “Serioso.” Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $32 (3 CDs).

     Having previously offered a recording of Beethoven’s early Op. 18 quartets that was lively almost to the point of effervescence, the Dover Quartet has now tackled the more-complex middle quartets – and in the process laid to rest any concerns that the ensemble might be a touch too lightweight in its interpretations to handle the increasing seriousness of the quartets Opp. 59, 74 and 95. In fact, the new Cedille set of these quartets stands up well to just about anything by more-longstanding ensembles: the Dover Quartet was formed in 2008 (at the Curtis Institute of Music) but plays as if its members have been honing their performances together for decades.

     The early quartets were firmly in the line of Mozart, and to a lesser extent that of Haydn, in the Dover Quartet’s vivacious interpretations. The middle quartets require greater seriousness of purpose and expressiveness, albeit without the complexity and intense forward-looking elements of the late quartets – which are first hinted at in Op. 95. These performers understand this with what it is tempting to call an intuitive grasp of Beethoven’s changing sensibilities – but there is no such thing, and in fact it is clear that the excellence of these readings is the result not of intuition but of close study and considerable time playing together. The precision of ensemble here is the Dover Quartet’s most salient characteristic, and the balance of technical mastery with an overall feeling of spontaneous music-making is what makes this three-CD set so impressive.

     Although the performers view each of the five middle quartets as a whole, their handling of individual movements sheds considerable light on the high quality of their approach. Thus, in Op. 59, No. 1, the first of the three “Razumovsky” or “Russian” quartets, the extended third movement is marked Adagio molto e mesto, but these players know not to overdo the sadness and never to let the movement drag: it may be marked to be played very slowly, but the slightly faster tempo here better fits the mood. Op. 59, No. 2, also has a very slow-paced slow movement, Molto adagio, and here too the tempo choice seems just right – and eventually provides a marvelous contrast with the concluding Presto, which is positively insouciant. The third Op. 59 quartet also ends at speed – the finale is marked Allegro molto – and here the pacing is so fast that the movement becomes something of a whirlwind, the performers staying together and producing precise tone through what seems to be sheer force of will.

     After the three Russian-inflected Op. 59 quartets, matters become more complex and more filled with potential expressive pitfalls. Op. 74 is only two years later than the three Op. 59 works, but is quite different on multiple levels – not just because of the first-movement pizzicato material that gives it the nickname “Harp.” The movements here are fairly evenly balanced as to length, especially the first and second, and there is little hint of striving for emotional depth: even the slow movement is marked Adagio ma non troppo, in clear contrast to what Beethoven sought in the previous quartets. The interpretative difficulties here lie in figuring out just how serious to make the work sound without overdoing matters. Indeed, Op. 74 as a whole is a work of balance, as is made particularly clear in the variations that make up its finale: again and again in this last movement, Beethoven contrasts strength with lyricism – and that is a pretty good description of the overall effect of the entire quartet. The Dover Quartet again has an unerring sense of how to make this work, not hesitating to produce a speedy reading when that is appropriate (the third movement, Presto, lives up to its tempo marking), but balancing quickness with an aptly conceived level of assertiveness and strength.

     It is in Op. 95, however, that the performers show just how serious and intense they can be, and just how well they understand the emotional as well as musical progress represented by this quartet. This is complex and difficult music, the very title “Serioso” (given by the composer himself) coming not from the not-very-slow second movement (Allegretto ma non troppo) but from, of all places, the highly dramatic third (very interestingly marked Allegro assai vivace ma serioso). Written in the rather unusual key of F minor, Op. 95 is the shortest of the five middle-period quartets and by far the most fervent – much of it has the feeling of a coiled spring, and it seems altogether fitting that Beethoven labeled the main section of the finale Allegretto agitato. The Dover Quartet players find considerable beauty in this music, but it is a dark beauty, the eventual upbeat ending all the more a sigh of relief for being so hard-won. That ending can be problematic, as can the endings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 466 and Don Giovanni, in both of which the sudden lightness can be hard to reconcile with all that has come before. The skill with which the Dover Quartet puts forth this final touch of brightness shows just how well the performers understand Beethoven’s musical and emotional stance at this point in his life.

     The sheer verve of the Dover Quartet’s performances of the Op. 18 quartets raised the question of how effectively they could make the transition to the middle quartets. The answer proves to be “very effectively indeed.” In fact, these performances are so well-done that no such question need be brought up regarding the Dover Quartet’s upcoming release of its third and final recording in the cycle of Beethoven’s quartets: there seems to be little doubt that these performers will surmount the extreme complexity of the late quartets with the same close attention to overall concept and fine detail that they have brought to their readings of the early and middle ones.

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