CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews

28.1.23

Briefly Noted: Queyras and Tharaud go for Baroque (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Marin Marais, Pièces de Viole, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexandre Tharaud

(released on January 27, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902315 | 62'24"
Alexandre Tharaud has not visited Washington since 2015, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras was last here in 2017. The two esteemed French musicians have continued their long and fruitful collaboration in a striking new Baroque album, with delightful transcriptions of Marin Marais’s pièces de viole, originally for viola da gamba and continuo, for the cello and piano. The performances, in the spirit of Baroque elaboration but taking full advantage of modern dynamic range and harmonic content, are delightful.

The two longest tracks are celebrated works in Marais's oeuvre. About a third of the disc is given to Couplets des Folies d'Espagne, from the composer's second book of Pièces de Viole, Marais's epic variation set on the widely known tune "La follia." This version of the piece shivers with rhythmic vitality, including some folksy Spanish twists, not least Tharaud's guitar-like repeated notes in one variation.

The second-longest piece on the disc, though only a quarter the size of the Folies d'Espagne, is La Rêveuse, included in Marais's Suite d’un goût étranger in his fourth book and used crucially in the splendid movie about Marais, Tous les Matins du Monde. From the same odd suite is the single track performed by Tharaud alone, an arrangement of the viol piece "Le badinage" somehow rendered on the Yamaha grand piano. Queyras also has one solo track, an arrangement of "Les Regrets," a charming piece sometimes attributed to Marais, given a soulful rendering on Queyras's 1696 Gioffredo Cappa cello.

Also not to be missed is the truly bizarre "Le Tableau de l'opération de la Taille," a piece that describes the horribly painful operation to remove a stone from the bladder. Actor Guillaume Gallienne reads the descriptions of this surgery, which Marais himself underwent without anesthesia in 1720. Fortunately for those who do not speak French, there is no translation of this brutal text, but the vivid demonstrations by the musicians give more than enough sense of their meaning.

16.1.23

A Survey of Bartók String Quartet Cycles



► An Index of ionarts Discographies



Continuing my discographies, this is a survey of - hopefully - every extant recorded cycle of Béla Bartók's String Quartets. Because finding the recording dates for all of these cycles had been/remains tricky, I have listed them alphabetically by performer. I do not, by and large, include incomplete cycles. I did, however, include cycles that are not complete on CD, which includes, for example (strangely), the Talich Quartet's Supraphon cycle from 1981/82, but not their incomplete London cycle (Nos 3 & 4 missing) on Collins from 1990/91.

I am sitting on the data for several new discographic entries under work. Ring cycles, Mahler, Nielsen, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven symphony cycles, Mozart Piano Concerto and String Quartet-cycles, among others. They take an awful lot of time to research, however, and even more time to put into html-presentable shape. And even then they are rarely complete or mistake-free. Neither will this one be, and every such post is also a plea to generously inclined readers with more information and knowledge of the subject than I have to lend a helping hand correcting my mistakes or filling data-lacunae. I am explicitly grateful for any such pointers, hinters, and corrections and apologize for any bloomers. Unlike some earlier discographies, this one does intend to be comprehensive. So I am especially grateful if I have sets that I have missed are pointed out to me. I have not listened to them all, but favorites are indicated with the "ionarts choice" graphic. Links to reputable reviews are included where I thought of it and could find any. With hundreds of links in this document, there are, despite my best efforts, bound to be some that are broken or misplaced; I am glad about every correction that comes my way. Enjoy!


Edits

01.20.2023Thanks to the DSCH-SQ4t-Cycle-Survey, I remembered about the Quartetto Classico - and I've added it below.

01.16.2023 I'm about to put this puppy online but have just discovered the first cycle I had hitherto overlooked: The Auryn Quartett's. But now we shoudl be ready.

There is also information floating about the net regarding a "Rudi Mahall Quartett" cycle. I find only Nos. 1, 2, 5, 6 listed under their name and the online recordings seem all to stem from one source. I have my doubts as to whether there really ever was such a quartet/recording or whether it's not some meta-data funk-up. Clarification appreciated..

05.26.2021: I have heard there is a cycle by a "Quartetto Classico" ["Cuarteto Classico"?] but cannot find a trace of it. Anyone know?

(Survey begins after the break, if you didn't land on this page directly)

11.1.23

Briefly Noted: Seung-Jin Cho adds to Chopin set

available at Amazon
Chopin, 4 Scherzi / Piano Concerto No. 2, Seong-Jin Cho, London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda

(released on June 25, 2021)
DG 00028948604395 | 76'56"

available at Amazon
[2016]
One of the best artists Deutsche Grammophon has in its catalogue these days is Seong-Jin Cho. Since winning the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, the South Korean pianist has been releasing a series of impressive recordings on the Yellow Label. The second of these discs devoted to Chopin appeared in 2021. Like the first installment, which paired the first of Chopin's piano concertos with the four ballades, on this one the four scherzi introduce the second piano concerto. The digital version of the album, and not the CD, contains an Easter egg of three additional tracks: the “Revolutionary” Étude (Op. 10, no. 12), an impromptu (Op. 29, no. 1) and a nocturne (Op. 9, no. 2).

Cho has formed a devoted collaboration with Gianandrea Noseda in the last few years, and the Italian conductor led the London Symphony Orchestra in these recordings of the Chopin concertos. Sadly, Cho has not played either one in his appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven 5 in 2017, Ravel G Major in 2019). Cho's last slated appearance with the local band, for Shostakovich 1, was canceled in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The pianist finally returns to the nation's capital tomorrow, to play Brahms 1 with the NSO in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (January 12 to 14).

These recordings feature what likely rocketed Cho to the top of the Chopin Competition: a fierce technique, with strengths in speed and accuracy more than sheer power, and a poetic touch that captures the more tender and vulnerable sides of the Polish composer. His interpretation of the four scherzi emphasizes the remarkable fluidity of his fingers, and in the virtuosic demands of the concerto's outer movements he does not disappoint. To score the highest marks, however, the soloist has to give the slow movement the right expressive elan, and Cho glides through the many ornamented roulades with elegant legato touch, without tipping into gauzy sentimentality.

4.1.23

Briefly Noted: Andreas Staier completes Well-Tempered Clavier Set

available at Amazon
Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. 1, A. Staier

(released on January 6, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902680.81 | 109'13"

available at Amazon
Vol. 2
[2021]
It was long past time to check in with what Andreas Staier has been up to recently. The esteemed German specialist in historical keyboards went back to recording Bach, with a two-release set of the complete preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier. He began with the more substantial second volume, released in 2021, leaving the earlier volume, the kernel of Bach's monumental collection, for now. Uniting the set is Staier's choice of instrument, a modern one built in Paris by Anthony Sidey and Frédéric Bal in 2004, modeled on a harpsichord made by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass in Hamburg in 1734, right between the appearances of Bach's two volumes.

In Staier's hands, this harpsichord belies the myth of the instrument as monotonous in sound. In both volumes, Staier uses the many registration possibilities to create a bewildering range of textures. The original Hass instrument, now in the collection of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels (I think), is a bit of a monster, a double-manual harpsichord with a disposition combining a 16', double 8', and 4' choir of strings. There is also a lute stop, as well as buff stops on the lower manual's 8' and 4'. (A few years later, Hass built an even larger harpsichord, with five choirs of strings controlled by three manuals, thought to be the largest original harpsichord of the period and the only historical harpsichord with three manuals.)

German harpsichords like this one can have a dozen or more possible registration combinations, and Staier seems to use them all. Some of the preludes and fugues stand out for their light sound, like the D#/E-flat minor pairing, giving an understated finish to the incredible complexity of this very long fugue, complete with tortured chromatic twists. (Only the final fugue of Book 1, in B minor, is longer.) Other pairings, using the big sets of strings, have a more orchestral sound, almost like a Busoni transcription of Bach with all the parallel octaves. The buff stops come in handy for a couple delicate pieces: one of these softened stops buzzes with a reedy twang like a Nasalzug, heard in the E major and F# major preludes. Staier engages the harp stop only on the very first prelude, the almost too-famous C major, to novel effect (also on the C# major prelude in Book 2). Staier's touch is not uniformly fluid, with some preludes having more tiny inconsistencies than others, but the variety of connections in the playing is always diverting.

30.12.22

A Survey of Mahler Symphony Cycles: A Work in Progress


An Index of ionarts Discographies




Mahler, an Addiction

Bruckner is a love, Mahler an addiction

When I helped put together three complete Mahler cycles to be aired during Classical WETA’s Mahler Month in 2009, I accompanied it with a series of articles on Mahler's Symphonies (and favorite recordings). These are the core of the Mahler Survey that’s now on ionarts, 26 essays in all. What was conspicuously missing at the time was a discussion of complete Mahler cycles, the point being that no one cycle could do all symphonies equal justice and, perhaps more to the point, that such a survey would be an enormous amount of extra work. So it has proven to be… and after a decade, I’ve finally cobbled together enough information to attempt this Mahler Symphony Cycle Survey.

A Question of Completeness

There are symphonic cycles that are either complete or not complete in a straightforward manner. If you’ve recorded fewer than 15 Shostakovich- or six Martinů-symphonies, your cycle is not complete. If you have recorded more than that you know something more than we do. But take Bruckner: Nine symphonies or eleven, including the “F-minor” and “0”? Or Schubert: Which, if any, completions of the numerous fragments to include? Mahler tops it all. We have Symphonies One through Nine, of course. But wouldn’t a proper cycle also include Das Lied von der Erde, which Mahler counted among his symphonies? Then there is the Tenth Symphony to consider and include: at the very least just the completed Adagio (and/or Pergatorio), or better yet one of its many performing versions. Now what’s a complete cycle. One that features Nine Symphonies? Those, and the Lied? Nine Symphonies and the Adagio? Nine and both, Adagio and Lied? Ten symphonies but not the Lied? Everything? Maybe boni like Das Klagende Lied, the Blumine-movement or Todtenfeier [sic], the early version of what would become the Second Symphony’s first movement? The Britten-arrangement of “What the Wild Flowers tell me”?

Since this survey has the ambition to be completist, I have included anything and everything that might constitute a cycle, including a few incomplete ones. But to visualize the state of completeness, I have added a sort of traffic light to the various states:


I distinguish between:

1-9 (Less than the basic Nine, incomplete)
1-9 (Basic Nine)
1-9+1 (Nine and either Lied or Adagio or compl. 10th)
1-9+L+A (Nine, Lied and Adagio)
1-10+L (All ten plus the Lied)
>1-10+L (Everything and then some boni, übercomplete)

Arrangement

Because it’s more practical and because the Twitter-survey suggested as much, I will sort these sets by conductor, not by date-finished, as is my practice in the other recent, advanced surveys. The practical aspect comes in, where there are inclusions of semi-cycles, that were never really issued as complete cycles but constitute something alike enough… and with conductors with multiple (almost-)sets to their name but overlap among them. It’s simply neat to know how many times Haitink and Bernstein went around the full (or not) Monty.

Unfinished and Taking Forever

Why publish this work in progress when I've only made it to Bernstein, so far? Well, partly to motivate myself to work on this. Also because I tweeted out the following: "Should I publish the #Mahler Symphony Cycle Survey I've been working on (on and mostly off) forever unfinished* or hold off until it is complete?" and the response, however limited, was on the "go ahead" side. What pushed it over the edge was this smartalec remark: "Mahler review dragging on endlessly. Who says irony is dead, who says this?" Well, there you have it. Mahler, dragging on and with irony.

Help!

Finally a call for help: Such a survey would not be possible—and certainly not complete—without the kind help of many fellow Mahler-lovers who chip in with their knowledge, cover pictures… who spot lacunae, spelling mistakes, broken links and factual errors. Thank you all for all much-appreciated contributions past and future! Finally a few abbreviations: LvdE = Lied von der Erde. LefG = Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. DKL = Das klagende Lied.

28.12.22

Briefly Noted: Luisi's Nielsen Cycle

available at Amazon
C. Nielsen, Symphonies 1/3, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, F. Luisi

(released on December 9, 2022)
DG 00028948634781 | 1h13

available at Amazon
Symph. 4/5
Fabio Luisi was appointed principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2017, and his contract in Copenhagen has been extended through at least 2026. The Italian conductor's first recording project with the ensemble, the principal orchestra sponsored by DR (the Danish Broadcasting Corporation), is a complete cycle of the six symphonies of Carl Nielsen. Ionarts has been delighted to take account of the music of Denmark's pre-eminent composer, including the string quartets, piano music, chamber music and even opera. In live performance one is most likely to encounter his symphonies, especially the Fourth ("The Inextinguishable"), last heard from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2013 and the NSO in 2020, and the Fifth, heard from the NSO in 2011. Others, like the Second, are more rare.

Not surprisingly, the first installment of this cycle combined Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, released this past October. The dividing line between Nielsen's first three symphonies and his last three is World War I, with the first three symphonies composed roughly between 1890 and 1911, and the Fourth begun in 1914. While hardly juvenilia, the First Symphony was premiered around Nielsen's 30th birthday. It is already representative in some ways of his mature style, ending in a different key than it opens, a device eventually known as "progressive tonality."

With obvious influence from earlier symphonic composers, however, it is also rather conventional by Nielsen's standards: in four traditional movements with fairly standard orchestration. He completed it while working as a violinist in the Royal Chapel Orchestra (now styled the Royal Danish Orchestra), which premiered the First Symphony, with the composer playing in the second violin section. Luisi's interpretation of the First is more expansive than Neeme Järvi's version with the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), closer in pacing to Blomstedt's recording with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca) -- interpretations likely shaped by Blomstedt's tenure as the first to be named the Danish NSO's principal conductor, from 1967 to 1977 -- and Michael Schønwandt's classic cycle with the Danish NSO (Dacapo, re-released by Naxos). Even more luxuriant in the middle movements, Luisi's tempo choices bring out the best of the ensemble's woodwind and string sound. A brass player in his youth, among other instruments, Nielsen knew how to marshal a brass-fueled crescendo, and the Danish NSO responds to Luisi's sculpting with sensitivity.

Every symphonic composer after Beethoven had a different reaction to the incorporation of singers in their symphonies. Nielsen wrote parts for voices only in his Third Symphony, a brief section of the second movement for baritone and soprano soloists, although without any words and therefore more like instruments. (In fact, in the score, Nielsen specifies that these parts may instead be performed by a fourth clarinet and fourth trombone.) The orchestration is augmented from the First, with three of each woodwind type, including doubling players on English horn and contrabassoon, plus a part for tuba. The "expansive" first movement, whose tempo marking gives the symphony its moniker, sounds like it easily could have been studied by John Williams, who has always imitated the best. As with the First, Luisi opts for more space in the tempo choices, especially in the serene slow movement, with fine vocal contributions from Palle Knudsen and Fatma Said, parts intertwined over a long pedal note with touches of Wagner and Strauss.

This cycle is just one of several to appear in recent years, with Nielsen's star on the rise: Paavo Järvi with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (RCA), Ole Schmidt and the London Symphony Orchestra (Alto), Colin Davis also with the LSO (LSO Live), and Osmo Vänskä with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BIS), among others. Perhaps the main competition could have been the cycle begun by Thomas Dausgaard with the Seattle Symphony, likely left incomplete following the Danish conductor's abrupt resignation from that orchestra early this year, before the Fifth or Sixth Symphony was released. Perhaps their new music director will complete the cycle, but no appointment has been announced yet. Luisi has the benefit of recording the symphonies with the orchestra that was the first ever to record a Nielsen symphony and has a long history with his music. The entire cycle will reportedly be released as a box set during the Carl Nielsen Festival this coming spring.

23.12.22

Best Recordings of 2022 (Briefly Noted)

The weekly CD review known as "Briefly Noted" made a comeback in 2022, with the added benefit that I listened to a lot more recordings more closely this year. As had been the case during the coronavirus lockdown era, beautiful music on my headphones continued to be a comforting presence. Here were the best new discs to hit my ears in the last twelve months.

available at Amazon
1. Vivaldi, The Great Venetian Mass, Sophie Karthäuser, Lucile Richardot, Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew (Harmonia Mundi). Les Arts Florissants set the too-famous Gloria as the centerpiece of a hypothetical reconstruction of a Great Venetian Mass by Vivaldi. The Redhead Priest, although he was required to produce several settings of the Latin Ordinary during his career at the Ospedale della Pietà, left no complete Mass that has survived. Paul Agnew, a long-time tenor with the ensemble and now serving as its musical codirector with founder William Christie, conducts a convincing interpretation that can only make the listener lament what such complete masses have been lost.

available at Amazon
2. Grieg, Haugtussa / Songs, Lise Davidsen, Leif Ove Andsnes (Decca). This is a beguiling recital of songs by Norway's most beloved composer. To seal the deal, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen partnered with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. The two musicians, working together for the first time, recorded the album in the town of Bodø in the Arctic Circle. It is anchored on Grieg's only song cycle, the mysterious Haugtussa (The Fairy Maid), with poetry by Arne Garborg in Nynorsk, the New Norwegian that had been reinstated after Norway had finally regained its independence from Denmark. Davidsen sings with both shimmering transparency and, where needed, overwhelming power, incarnating the voice of Veslemøy, the young Norwegian girl with psychic powers.

available at Amazon
3. Le Manuscrit de Madame Théobon, Christophe Rousset (Aparte). Christophe Rouuset made these two discs of music from a newly rediscovered manuscript, which he acquired from a bookseller over Ebay. The instrument he plays on the recording is a harpischord made by Nicolas Dumont in 1704, around the same time that the music was likely copied. Restored by David Ley from 2006 to 2016, it is one of only three Dumont harpsichords known to have survived. Rousset has identified the manuscript's first owner as Lydie de Théobon. King Louis XIV began a two-year affair with her at the Château de Chambord in 1670, shortly before Molière and Lully premiered Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme there.

available at Amazon
4. György Kurtág, Kafka-Fragmente, Anna Prohaska, Isabelle Faust (Harmonia Mundi). György Kurtág composed the Kafka-Fragmente from 1985 to 1987, a song cycle on bits of text gleaned from Franz Kafka's diaries, letters, and unpublished stories. Like much of Kurtág's music, each of the forty movements is a dense, carefully thought out nugget of music. Isabelle Faust and Anna Prohaska made this recording in May 2020 in a Berlin studio, which must have been surreal given the circumstances. Its text captures some sense of the lockdown year: "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life." After living through the coronavirus lockdown, the sentiments of this complicated piece now strike me in new ways.

available at Amazon
5. Jean Mouton, Missa Faulte d'argent / Motets, Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice (Hyperion). Jean Mouton was prolific enough that all but one of the pieces on this disc are receiving their first recordings. Mouton's style is intricately contrapuntal, drawing comparison to the music of Josquin Desprez, with whom he was roughly contemporary. Confitemini domino combines four voices in points of imitation on the outer text. These unfold over a clever puzzle canon, notated with the inscription "Preibis parare viam meam." Like St. John the Baptist, who was to prepare the way for Christ, the comes voice is supposed to enter first, followed by the dux, an unexpected inversion of the normal canon process.

available at Amazon
6. Polish Songs, Jakub Józef Orliński, Michał Biel (Erato). Not surprisingly, countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński has mostly recorded Baroque music, often in partnership with the historically informed performance ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. For this new album, the Polish singer has partnered with Polish pianist Michał Biel, his longtime friend from their student days in Warsaw and at the Juilliard School. The program is the fruit of their collaboration in song recital repertory by more recent Polish composers, all from the last 150 years. Some of these composers may be familiar, although Karol Szymanowski's Songs from Kurpie may not be.

available at Amazon
7. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, Julian Prégardien, Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon (Harmonia Mundi). Raphaël Pichon calls this St. Matthew Passion "a consciously choral performance," with the solo singers also serving as section leaders in what is an exquisite choral sound. As the finishing touch, fifteen young singers from the Maîtrise de Radio France take the chorale tunes woven into the complex textures of the opening and closing movements of Part I, a part marked by Bach as "soprani in ripieno." The solo parts range from very good to excellent, with soloists from each choir taking the arias as Bach indicated and some of the characters named in dialogues given to other chorus members.

available at Amazon
8. Mackey, Beautiful Passing / Mnemosyne's Pool, A. Marwood, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, D. Robertson (Canary Classics). This disc brings together two major works by Steven Mackey on the theme of human perseverance in the face of death. Washingtonians heard the American composer's violin concerto, Beautiful Passing, from the National Symphony Orchestra a decade ago, a riveting tribute to Mackey's mother. That rarest of rare birds, a new full-length symphonic work, appeared this year in his Mnemosyne's Pool, a meditation on memory and death partly inspired by the loss of Mackey's father-in-law. David Robertson conducted the piece with the NSO earlier this month, in a program including Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with the gorgeous soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha.

available at Amazon
9. Schubert, "Great" and "Unfinished" Symphonies, B'Rock Orchestra, R. Jacobs (PentaTone). René Jacobs continues to surprise in his complete traversal of the symphonies of Franz Schubert with the B'Rock Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble based in Ghent. Jacobs based his interpretation of the "Unfinished" Symphony on a theory put forward by Arnold Schering in an essay published in 1938, relating the music to the allegorical narrative Mein Traum (My dream), which Schubert drafted in pencil in 1822. As Jacobs puts it in an extensive booklet essay, including a section-by-section analysis of both works, in Mein Traum "Schubert tries to put into words what he seems far more able to say without words in his music."

available at Amazon
10. William Bolcom, The Complete Rags, Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion). In a liner note to this dazzling recording, composer William Bolcom describes the origins of his obsession with the rag. It began in 1967, when he first heard of Joplin and his opera Treemonisha, and continued for much of his career, as he and some fellow travelers shared new ragtime discoveries and wrote their own compositions in the style. Most of the original rags in this collection date from the ragtime revival period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Marc-André Hamelin, himself a musical mimic not unlike Bolcom, gives these pieces a studied nonchalance.

Honorable Mentions
11. Carlos Simon, Requiem for the Enslaved, Marco Pavé, MK Zulu, Hub New Music (Decca)

12. Georg Philipp Telemann, Fantasias for solo violin, Alina Ibragimova (Hyperion)

13. Michel Richard de Lalande, Grands motets, Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé (Harmonia Mundi)

14. Pâques à Notre-Dame, Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, Yves Castagnet, Henri Chalet (Warner)

15. Mendelssohn, Violin Sonatas, Alina Ibragimova, Cédric Tiberghien (Hyperion)

16. Vivaldi, Nisi Dominus, Eva Zaïcik, Le Poème Harmonique, Vincent Dumestre (Alpha)

17. Beethoven, Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3, Dover Quartet (Cedille)

18. Handel, Opera Arias and Concerti Grossi, Sandrine Piau, Les Paladins, Jérôme Correas (Alpha)

19. Carols after a Plague, The Crossing, Donald Nally (New Focus Recordings)

20. Berlioz, Les Nuits d'été / Harold en Italie, Michael Spyres, Timothy Ridout, Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg, John Nelson (Erato)

21.12.22

Briefly Noted: Dover Quartet ends Beethoven voyage (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3, Dover Quartet

(released on October 14, 2022)
Cedille CDR90000-215 | 193'20"

available at Amazon
Vol. 2
(2021)

available at Amazon
Vol. 1
(2020)
[Review]
This summer came some bad news for fans of the supremely talented Dover Quartet. Violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt has left the group, a decision that took effect in August, becoming the first of the group's founding members to depart. The reason given was that she plans to pursue other musical interests; whatever the reason, the personnel change presents worries for how this beloved group's sound will change.

Last summer, fortunately, the Dover Quartet was able to record the last installment in its three-part complete set of the Beethoven string quartet cycle, a sort of pandemic project for the group. Listening to the last volume feels even more like coming full circle: although the group has hardly played any Beethoven in live concerts, at least in Washington, their local debut concluded with the third movement of Beethoven's final quartet, op. 135, played as an encore.

The quartet has spoken about waiting to make a complete Beethoven recording until they had had the chance to play all the works in concert several times. In an group interview given near the start of the project, second violinist Bryan Lee said, "I feel like recording the Beethoven quartets is like having a child." To which Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt added, "You’re never truly ready, but at a certain point you just have to dive in and do it." If we extend the metaphor to include the group's "divorce," the fate of the "children" becomes even more poignant.

Pajaro-van de Stadt described the quartet's approach as trying not to think of making a final statement on the cycle for the ages, but rather "constantly reminding ourselves to play on this recording as if we’re performing in concert." This is an apt description of the liveliness of the sounds captured on the recording, with the same scrupulous attention to detail, ensemble tightness, and individuality of the four instruments that so impresses in their live performances.

Indeed, in few string quartets does one get the chance to hear the second violin and viola so often and so clearly - and find it so rewarding. At the end of the first disc, the Cavatina and new finale of Op. 130 are soul-warming in their burnished sound. As the fine program note by scholar Nancy November remind us, this new finale, composed by Beethoven to replace the unwieldy Grosse Fuge at his publisher's request, was the last quartet movement he completed before his death. The Grosse Fuge, which opens the second disc, is a daunting peak in the string quartet repertoire, chosen by the Emerson Quartet as the (somewhat shaky) final statement of their farewell tour, for example, heard earlier this month at Wolf Trap. The Dover's rendition takes no quarter.

While seriousness abounds in Beethoven's late quartets, there is also Haydnesque humor, which the Dover brings across with delightful wit, in the Presto of Op. 131, for example. Op. 132, itself a study in contrasts between sober reflection and earthy joy, shows the range of sound the quartet is capable of, from harsh and unforgiving to serene and silky. "Must it be?" that the Dover Quartet will not sound quite like this going forward? The answer, of course, is It Must Be. Happily, we will always have this Beethoven set, which may not supplant my current Beethoven favorites, the Takács Quartet and Quatuor Mosaïques, but is in their company.

Violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt will return to Washington this season, playing in a concert on the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts series on January 25. Washington audiences will be able to hear the Dover Quartet with their new violist, Hezekiah Leung, when they play a concert February 27 at the Kennedy Center, rescheduled from October, when it was canceled because of illness among the musicians. This remarkable Beethoven set may not be the last release from the quartet's original formation, depending on how much time they spent recording during the pandemic, but it feels like the valedictory capstone to over a decade of the group making music together.