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


Briefly Noted: The Dover Quartet Starts on Beethoven

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete String Quartets (Vol. 1), Dover Quartet

(released on July 18, 2020)
Cedille CDR90000-198 | 154'56"
It begins. The Dover Quartet's programs in Washington have not featured much Beethoven yet, including their last (canceled) appearance at the Kennedy Center in April. The single glimpse of their approach to this most revered string quartet composer was the third movement of Beethoven's final quartet, op. 135, played as an encore at their Washington debut. It was "a light-filled performance like a hymn of peace," according to my review: clearly, the experience whetted my appetite.

Finally adding to their excellent but limited discography, the Dovers have launched a complete traversal of the Beethoven quartets with this 2-disc set of the six quartets of op. 18. It is an exceptional beginning to what promises to be one of my favorite cycles. They would not supplant my two favorite approaches to the Beethoven quartets, the fiery Takács Quartet and the mellow, gut-strung Quatuor Mosaïques (incomplete), but they are in their company.

Overall, the Dover feels not as brash as the Takács, less impetuous because there is not that slight edge of rhythmic uncertainty, exciting but unsettling. The time and care are worth some slightly slower timings, as in the sweetly affecting slow movement of Op. 18, no. 1, but the group also avoids tempos as expansive as those sometimes chosen by Quatuor Mosaïques. The least pleasing to my ear is their no. 4, too anguished in the first movement and frantic Menuetto, but balanced by the sweetly dancing Scherzo in between them.

At the same time, there are few string quartets in which all four cylinders, as it were, fire with such uniformity, as in the relaxed finale of no. 4, capped by an exhilirating Prestissimo coda, striking just the right contrast between the two tempi. Grace and balance are the Dover's greatest strengths, as in the poised and sunny no. 5, with its melting slow movement of extended variations.

For a few years now the Dover Quartet has been one of the ensembles I never want to miss hearing live. Among other cultural devastations, the coronavirus seemed poised to wipe out the entire second half of the group's residency at the Kennedy Center, which began in 2018. Last week, the Kennedy Center announced that 50 listeners will be able to hear the Dover Quartet, joined by the Escher Quartet in an octet program, October 20 on the Opera House stage. Sadly, that concert will not be livestreamed to a broader audience.

For other music to hear this fall, see my pandemic round-up of live and streamed concerts at Washington Classical Review.


Briefly Noted: Christmas in the Pandemic Summer

available at Amazon
Christmas Carols, SWR Vokalensemble, M. Creed

(released on August 10, 2020)
SWR Classic SWR19094CD | 59'10"
How keenly music's absence is felt during the pandemic struck me recently listening to this little disc. It is nothing spectacular in terms of programming: an hour's worth of English Christmas carols. The singing is excellent, done in beautiful sound by the SWR Vokalensemble, about thirty voices in size, under the direction of Marcus Creed.

A German choir stealing the lunch of their British colleagues is fair payback for the perennial "Christmas Around the World" programs heard every year, and the English pronunciation here is impeccable. A tribute, this, to the teaching of their English-born director, an alumnus of both King's College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford, whose tenure with this distinguished radio choir ended this summer.

The group's women sound better on their own (in Emily Elizabeth Poston's rich Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, for example) than the men, who are featured less. The same applies in solo voices heard, although on this account the more demanding writing, as in The Fayrfax Carol of Thomas Adès, taxes both equally. The echo quartet in Britten's gorgeous A Hymn to the Virgin, happily, is top-notch. The effect of this simple but effective carol service is a sweet reminiscence of the days before coronavirus (the recording was captured in the fall of 2018). Sadly, it is also a bitter reminder that we may spend a bleak Christmas without "the playing of the merry organ" or "sweet singing in the choir," in the nostalgic words of the The Holly and the Ivy.