Dover Quartet launches Beethoven cycle with quicksilver elegance

Wed Dec 16, 2020 at 12:22 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Dover Quartet has released the first volume in their project to record the complete Beethoven quartets. Photo: Roy Cox

Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18, nos. 1-6. Dover Quartet (Cedille, two discs).

There is no historic record confirming Ludwig van Beethoven’s exact birthday, but we do know that he was baptized on December 17, 1770. Since contemporary baptisms in Germany were invariably done the day after birth, it’s a pretty safe bet that he was born December 16—making today the great man’s 250th birthday.

Most of the numerous planned live performances of Beethoven’s music to mark the occasion this Covid-19 year have been cancelled or put on hold. Yet the recordings and reissues have continued to flow. And among the most compelling of new Beethoven offerings is the Dover Quartet’s set of the Op. 18 string quartets.

Quartet-in-residence at Northwestern University as well as the Kennedy Center, the Dover Quartet’s two-disc set is the first volume in a projected complete cycle of Beethoven’s quartets for the Cedille label.

Tackling Beethoven’s six earliest works in the genre, the Dover Quartet’s slender elegance seems especially well suited to the Op. 18 set. From the opening Allegro con brio of the Quartet in F major (No. 1), the young musicians are technically immaculate and scrupulously balanced yet never merely polished or “correct.”

Their refined tone, seamless ensemble and quicksilver style are in synch with the lighter, Haydenesque moments, as when they delightfully convey the deceptively playful opening pages of the G major quartet and lilting caprice of the first movement of the D major work. 

Beethoven’s uneasy lyricism is here as well, in the Dover’s affectionate rendering of the mercurial slow movement of the G major work. Similarly, the playing is expressive yet skirts sentimentality in the brooding Adagio of the F major, the dark drama of the middle section starkly manifest yet not overdone.

The Dover members also convey the charm of the Mozart-inspired A major quartet where the slow movement’s flowing variations are vividly characterized. And the famous “La Malinconia” finale of Op. 18’s final Quartet in B flat is somber and searching while kept in scale; the ensuing Allegretto likewise is taken at face value as cheerful antipode to the sadness without the trendy angst-ridden desperation. After a rather pale, soft-focus Scherzo in the F major quartet, the scherzos in the rest of the works go better, the players digging into the rhythms with greater bite and conveying Beethoven’s bumptious rusticity.

There is ample vitality throughout with a notably fizzing finale to No. 2 and whirlwind take on the Presto closing of the D major. Following the “melancholy” reprise in the B flat, a dervish coda rounds out the performance and the set in this most promising first installment to the Dover Quartet’s cycle.

With a fine recording, the only minor blot is the rather pedantic notes, which often comment in exhaustive detail on a quartet’s single movement while ignoring other sections entirely.

One should also note that the Juilliard String Quartet’s pioneering set of Beethoven’s complete quartets has been reissued in a nicely priced Sony box (nine discs). These performances (recorded 1964-1970) have long and justifiably been praised, and their thrusting, no-nonsense style seem to get at the heart of Beethoven without any special pleading, most strikingly so in the otherworldly pages of the late quartets.

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