The Dover Quartet formed at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 2008. After their sweep of the awards at the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013, they have been regular visitors to Washington. The latest stop was at Dumbarton Oaks, where I heard their second performance on Monday night. In the Dover's 2013 local debut on the Candlelight Concert Society series in Columbia, the highlight was their performance of Shostakovich's third quartet, "hands down the best Shostakovich performance by a young string quartet to reach these ears since the Jerusalem Quartet," as I wrote then.
The piece was just as good as the post-intermission climax of this concert, a work about the obliviousness of a society heading into war and its lament afterward, if the composer's movement subtitles are to be believed. Even the bloodthirsty third movement still felt manicured in a way, thrilling and forceful but never ragged, with a deliberate and sarcastic tone in the second movement. The anguished threnody of the fourth movement featured some gorgeous playing by violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, followed by a fifth movement that grew in power into shrieks of rage, even then without turning unnecessarily ugly, the dissonances and attacks all carefully calibrated. The nostalgic ending, a glowing major chord, featured the lean, limpid tone of first violinist Joel Link sobbing against the others, unable to forget the past.
An opening Mozart quartet, "The Hunt" (K. 458), was the only disappointment, because in the first two movements, the quartet seemed to misjudge the effect of their ensemble sound in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room, resulting in a sound just not as rarefied as we are accustomed to hearing from them. This may have been due to being less familiar with this piece or perhaps being satisfied with a lower standard, but fortunately by the start of the third movement, the quartet's best, that expected warm, balanced sound was back.
While there was work to be done on the Mozart, the quartet gave a supremely polished rendition of Caroline Shaw's Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks). Created last year for the museum and actually premiered at a private concert here in November, it is not really much of a piece, five short movements inspired by locales in the estate's gardens. The main motif of the first movement, for example, is the three-note pattern mi-re-do (the opening of Three Blind Mice, among other things), which when combined with varied accompanying material sounds like sol-fa-me in other contexts. The second movement is built on citations from Ravel's F Major Quartet and Mozart's K. 387, with a simple rising scale as the lead motif, and most of the piece is little more than a game of sonorities, with the most memorable moment involving Shaw's trademark microtonal glissandi that explode the mostly tonal harmonic fabric from within.