Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, Camden Shaw, cello), Works by Beethoven and Vivian Fung, Koerner Hall, Vancouver Academy of Music, September 18, 2014 

Landslide winners in the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, the young Dover Quartet has thus far received the strongest press both in America and Europe.  The New Yorker has called it “the young American quartet of the moment”, and their 110 future engagements already booked certainly testifies to the interest.  The ensemble, consisting of graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music, and recently named the school’s first ever Quartet-In-Residence, made its Vancouver debut in the enterprising ‘Music in the Morning’ series. 

On this hearing, there certainly can be few questions about the tonal qualities of this quartet.  Their sound is integrated, detailed and balanced, capable of moving out with strength and brazen power when needed but equally able to cultivate refinement and warmth.  There are so many technically-adroit quartets around these days that it is nice to see how the Dover’s can balance technical address and drive with emotional expression. In many ways, the ensemble is a strikingly-harmonious product of the two quartets that mentored them, taking precision and virtuosity from the Guarneri Quartet and expressive power and warmth from the Vermeer Quartet.   The thing which stands out about their interpretations – and testifies to their maturity -- is how coherent and structurally aware they are; they always seem to know where they are going.  A large part of this is their seeming knack of finding the right tempo to allow any movement to unfold naturally and its details to fall in place in an unforced way.    

The concert opened with Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s String Quartet No. 3, a work actually commissioned for the 2013 Banff competition and played by the ensemble at that time. It is a compact and interesting piece, a study in different intensities of motion and dynamic extremes, all held together by a haunting, chant-like underpinning.  I thought the performance here was as good as it gets, with remarkably clear articulation throughout.  The wild and frenzied moments that follow the distilled opening were executed very well while the gyrations that retreat back into a quiet, ethereal world were beautifully controlled.  The work was capped off by Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt’s wonderfully-moving viola statement. 

It always amazes me how young string quartets these days wish to move into the rarefied terrain of Beethoven’s ‘late’ string quartets so early in their development.  If, in the past, we had asked celebrated quartet violinists such as Sandor Vegh or Alexander Schneider how long it would take to master these quartets, they probably would have said ‘a lifetime’.  So, we should not expect that much from musicians still under 30.  Nonetheless, the Dover’s performance of String Quartet, Op. 127 was certainly far more than creditable and much more than just a mechanical run-through.  And the degree of poise and concentration shown in a performance undertaken so early in the day was noteworthy; the late quartets are hardly ‘morning music’ for anyone.  The work flowed quite naturally from start to finish, featuring a stream of intelligent, sculpted playing and obvious feeling. 

The highlight for me was the long and difficult Adagio which achieved a particularly fine integration and poignancy.  The only qualification here was that the luxuriant quality and the radiance in the playing, while extremely beautiful, was perhaps a little too demonstrative to square with the fragility of Beethoven’s inner world.  But that was the nature of the approach: somewhat smoother, warmer and more romantically fulsome than we might be used to.   The more emotionally-virile Beethoven of the Op. 59 Razumovsky quartets was still partially visible in the rear view mirror.  All the other movements were carried with judicious balance and cultivation.

When this interpretation is eventually fine-tuned, I think it will likely become tighter and terser in demeanour, tending to a somewhat leaner expressive posture and bringing out more of the little quirky hesitations, cryptic commentaries and abrupt protestations that are all part of Beethoven’s often- jagged testament. Currently, the warmth and flow of the playing sometimes makes these characteristics take a back seat.  The first and third movements could ultimately use even more snap and snarl, while the uncompromising rhythms of the finale could have a greater feeling of dogged determination, with less romantic zeal.

Doubtlessly, it does take a lifetime to probe all the complexities of this grandly-austere masterpiece, but the bottom line is that there was virtually nothing in the Dover’s interpretation that was aimless or failed to communicate.   The traversal always achieved a natural motion and direction.  In this respect, I thought it was at least as firmly anchored and cohesive as the young and celebrated Pavel Haas Quartet’s reading of Op. 132 that I saw a year or two ago.  With such a comparison, one has to be very strongly enthusiastic about the Dover Quartet’s initial voyage of discovery.  And, of course, I only heard them in the morning!


© Geoffrey Newman 2014