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

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Beethoven, Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3, Dover Quartet

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

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Vol. 2

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Vol. 1
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.

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