Dover Quartet celebrates Stradivari anniversary at Library of Congress

Tue Dec 19, 2017 at 11:39 am

The Dover Quartet performed at the Library of Congress Monday night.

Since the Dover Quartet swept the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013, this talented group has been at the top of my chamber group listening list. Happily, Washington’s concert presenters agree, hosting them at venues all around town. In addition to their second appearance at the Kennedy Center in January, the quartet, formed at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 2008, appeared Monday night at the Library of Congress.

As the regulars at the Library’s free concert series know, December 18 is the day that Antonio Stradivari, the legendary Cremonese maker of string instruments, died in 1737. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of that date, in 1937, the Library hosted a concert featuring musicians playing the precious Stradivarius instruments in its collection. Eighty years later, the concert remains an annual tradition.

Viktor Ullmann composed his String Quartet No. 3, featured on the Dover Quartet’s new recording, “Voices of Defiance,” while imprisoned in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. It survives only because he gave his music manuscripts to a fellow prisoner before boarding the train that carried him to his execution at Auschwitz.

The group played the piece with warmth and vitality, the gorgeous yearning of the opening theme opening like a flower. The Strad instruments showed their raucous side, too, voiced during the scherzo section, a sardonic waltz, setting up a return of the opening material, now infused with nostalgia. A fugue on a 12-tone theme, not that you would recognize it from the lush harmony that goes with it, was delicate, growing into a boisterous conclusion.

Although all string quartets given the chance to play on the Library’s Strads relish the opportunity it takes time for performer and instrument to get to know one another. Signs of that newness appeared in the Ullmann piece, including some tuning issues, especially in positions high on the strings. Cellist Camden Shaw even had a slight mishap early in the piece when the peg of the Castelbarco cello, made in 1699, slipped out of its place.

Ullmann studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna, about two decades after the older composer’s String Quartet in D Major, a youthful work that sounds more like Brahms and Dvořák than the mature Schoenberg. Initially the quartet was not quite in agreement about the tempo of the first movement, but once it settled into place they made a powerful case for the work.

The second movement especially, with its luscious sounds produced with mutes, was a delight because of the rich solo playing from violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. Graceful hemiolas, particularly reminiscent of Brahms, enlivened the third movement, followed by a puckish rondo theme, elusive and slithering, in the folksy finale. It is remarkable that this piece, completed in 1897, sounds so unlike most other Schoenberg, when by the time of Verklärte Nacht, just two years later, he had found his voice.

Going backwards in the teacher-student chain, the concert ended with the String Quartet No. 2 of Alexander Zemlinsky, who mentored Schoenberg. One can only hope the Dover Quartet has plans to record this piece, which they played with authority and subtlety. In five sprawling movements, it is a series of intriguing vignettes one after the other, documented in the half-page of tempo changes printed in the program. The intensely longing phrases of the opening are crossed with dissonance, eventually resolving as the whole piece does back to major tonalities.

First violinist Joel Link exulted in the sleek high notes of the 1699 Castelbarco Strad in the muted solo of the slow movement, which also featured the group’s elegant crafting of sound as an ensemble. Every moment in this broad canvas was rarefied and refined, without the thread of dramatic life ever fading. At the climax of the piece, Pajaro-van de Stadt hacked away on a single note with her viola, signaling the start of the soothing, dying impulse of the piece’s conclusion, which evaporated into eternity.

This program demonstrated the growing mastery of the Dover Quartet over all corners of the string quartet repertory. Add to the list the style of late Romantic, incipiently chromatic Viennese music heard in this delectable concert.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Library of Congress. Admission is free.

One Response to “Dover Quartet celebrates Stradivari anniversary at Library of Congress”

  1. Posted Dec 19, 2017 at 3:12 pm by Dorothy Biondi

    An absolutely perfect evening of quartet music. The Dover is my new passion and I would follow them wherever. Thanks to all who made this concert possible.

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