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Welcome to the Dover Quartet

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The winners of the Banff International String Quartet Competition, held every three years, have gone on to be some of our favorite new string quartets. The list includes the Daedalus Quartet (First Prize, 2001), the Jupiter Quartet (First Prize, 2004), the Ensō Quartet (second prize, 2004), and the Belcea Quartet (third place, 1998). Add to that list the Dover Quartet, which made a complete sweep of all the prizes at Banff this year. Naturally, I took the chance to hear the group, formed and trained at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, when they came to the area on Saturday night, at the Candlelight Concert Series in Columbia, Md.

One of the prizes that the Dover Quartet won at Banff was for best performance of a Haydn quartet, and their rendition of the composer's "Sunrise" quartet (B-flat major, op. 76, no. 4) showed why. The group gave the piece a warm, glowing sound, especially in the gorgeous slow movement, with no instrument ever forced toward stridency. The third movement had a lively and dancing feel, with the folk-influenced trio particularly vivid in its modal turns and drone-like textures. The fourth movement was witty but understated, with only a few sour turns in the high range of the first violin, for which more time to place high notes may have helped. Violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt stood out for her loamy sound every time she came to the fore.

The Dover Quartet concluded this concert with a tragic and bracing rendition of Shostakovich's third quartet (F major, op. 73), hands down the best Shostakovich performance by a young string quartet to reach these ears since the Jerusalem Quartet. It was again not an oversized sound, scaled appropriately to the room and its less than stellar acoustic. Pajaro-van de Stadt, in brief spoken comments, listed the programmatic titles that Shostakovich had initially assigned to this quartet's movements, and the group took the business of creating narrative scenes quite seriously. The carefree banality of the first movement was followed by the viola's menacing ostinato and the eggshell staccato waltz in the second movement, evoking layers of anxiety. Almost toneless, scratching clusters underpinned the first violin's frantic melody in the third movement, followed by another incendiary viola solo, leading to a shrieked conclusion that was chilling. The laments and tense funeral march of the fourth movement, all of it beautifully balanced in each pairing, with no instrument ever shouting over the others, led to the eternal questions of the fifth movement, which comes to rest on a major chord, over which the first violin continued its dissonant but sweet inquiries.

The middle of the concert was given to the world premiere of a new string quartet by American composer Eric Sessler. It was in a pretty, mostly tonal idiom, with many nice ideas, particularly in the elegiac second movement, and the Dovers gave it a better performance than it probably deserved. Sessler had some nice ideas but seemed to take them nowhere, chewing over some motifs over and over again. The piece could stand significant trimming, possibly the entire third movement, which struck me as too similar in quality to the second and started to wear thin not far into it. It is perhaps unfair to put this work in comparison with Haydn and Shostakovich, but that is the peril of composing string quartets. Even worse for this piece was comparison to the encore, the third movement of Beethoven's final quartet, op. 135, a light-filled performance like a hymn of peace to dispel Shostakovich's fog of war.

The Dover Quartet will be back in Washington next spring, for a concert at the Phillips Collection (March 23), to play a work for marimba and string quartet by Andy Akiho with percussionist Ian Rosenbaum.

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