Challenges: The Dover Quartet, in Rockport, Dec. 9, 2016
The repertory provides a perpetual test. Performers measure themselves constantly against its challenges—and passing, or superseding those challenges, never happens. They remain constant.
The Dover Quartet will play together for many years, one hopes, and will build on their initial achievements—competition prizes, recordings, formidable mentors—to the enjoyment of many. The quartet’s performance in Rockport Saturday evening was one small part of that career, and it showed how groups with outstanding training, strong ambition and great skill can still grow, given the demands of the music.
They performed Mozart K. 589, from the last set (“Prussian”) of the composer’s quartets, along with two C major works, Britten’s second quartet and the last Razumovsky.
Mozart is a too familiar concert opener, and brings more risks than ensembles are willing to admit. Elegance and insight make demands just like virtuosity, and when a group falls short, it gives the strong appearance that they are unsuited to the task.
That may be an overstatement to this playing, but approaches the problem. Mozart is no warm-up, not for audiences, and not for players. And certainly not this late quartet, which reveals the composer’s uncertainties much more than usual.
If uncertainties be the wrong notion, then think of it as Mozart’s fondness for kicking the prevailing form in the shins, while lavishing the music with grand ideas. Not acknowledging this mischief—here presented as a repeated gambit that has one long note pulled, followed by a short phrase of sixteenth notes—everyone in the ensemble playing this “trick” on the others at some point—leads to an overly stately reading. This is Mozart, not Haydn.
These thoughts fall into the category “room for improvement.” The Larghetto—sweetly sung in the cello (Camden Shaw) and viola (Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt), had it counterpoint lavished with attention, the canonic descending scales in its middle section full of detail. The same could not be said of the Menuetto, which fell into some lazy articulation when the four parts diverged.
Dover brought intensity and love to Britten’s great second quartet. Diving deeply into forms and phrases from Purcell, Britten carved a startling quartet whose three movements all challenge ideas about harmony, rhythm and shape.
A pedal point—or drone, although it’s not, or ostinato figure—dominates. A middle movement—played muted and forte (for the most part)—creates a disturbingly original sound. The finale, a chaconne, investigates multiple nuances (variations would be overstating it) on a long theme, interrupted with cadenzas. A double-stopped virtuosic viola solo stood out among these.
This music brought out the best in the ensemble. Its coda—two dozen violent C major chords, incessant and unchanging except for dynamics—put an exclamation point on the unusual piece, and its smartly rendered interpretation.
A lengthy intermission could not erase that C major sound, and the vague, exploratory opening of Beethoven’s Razumovsky brought that sonic world rushing back. But not immediately.
The Andante con moto opening searches for its C major home—not articulating it for many bars—and that yearning brought back the sonic terrain in a rush. When achieved, that single sound boxed the ears of the idea that works in the same key should not be on the same program.
Full of ideas—this was a program of ideas—the fugal finale, tumultuous, mad and grand at the same time—was brilliant Beethoven and inspired Dover.
Dover Quartet performs the same program for the Peoples’ Symphony Concert this evening at New York’s Washington Irving High School.