Some well-seasoned music lovers have expressed something like relief at one silver-lining development
out of the Covid-19 disaster: we were spared an excess of an already overprogrammed master composer.
Yes, you've surely noticed that the pandemic has wiped out special celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Anniversary-prone symphony orchestras in particular had this thematic element obliterated from their schedules, along with everything else they had planned.
I, for one, have regretted not getting a chance to attend a "Missa Solemnis" performance in June, which would have been among the twlight landmarks of Krzysztof Urbanski's tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Recordings, especially of chamber music, can be dropped into the market no matter what, of course. And among the benefits during these pinched times is putting on disc contemporary interpretations of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets. Pentatone released an eight-disc set of them all with the Miro Quartet, and I reviewed it here just as the current year began without looking as dismal as it has become.
Now the Dover Quartet has entered the lists of a planned full cycle with Beethoven's calling card in the rapidly evolving genre of the string quartet: Opus 18. The Dover's mastery in these six quartets shows itself in its commitment to a young composer's bold way of making his mark on a form and a style he had inherited from Mozart, Haydn and lesser luminaries. The music is rich in personality and mastery of form as played by Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and Camden Shaw.
Notable is the pathos that this ensemble finds sometimes even in music of headlong energy. Tempos are generally on the fast side, but quite well-judged and flexible. Slow movements are not slighted in the achievement: In the Adagio of Quartet No. 1 in F major, tempo shifts give the music almost an "ad lib" feel at times. This suits the succession of tragic surprises of the young lovers in the tomb scene of "Romeo and Juliet," which Beethoven said he had in mind while composing the movement.
Spontaneity can be felt just below the surface of well-coordinated interpretations. For emphasis and to add a note of suspense about what's to come, the Dover sometimes slackens the pace judiciously. The practice may not follow directions in the score, but occurrences fall well within responsible interpretive boundaries.
When the outline of the music allows light to shine on a Haydnesque texture, the Dover keeps those lines vivid. The less genial side of the emergent genius is given a patrician cast that manages to avoid glossing over it. Crucial changes of direction in the finale ("La Malinconia") of No. 6 in B-flat major are delicately, yet firmly, handled. Beethoven's characteristic "sforzando" outbursts have the right stunning effect, but without roughness, as in the assertive first movement of No. 4 in C minor.
The sound is satin-smooth, and the recording quality preserves a
blooming resonance of the sort that might well be heard in a first-class
concert hall. There is real space around it, neither too dry nor
too glossy. But best of all are the many indelible indications that the Dover Quartet has fresh insights for our time into a body of work that a certain musical newcomer to Vienna first confronted the public with 22 decades ago.