December 14, 2020
Even as the pandemic has shredded the fabric of musical life, artists and presenters have found ways of knitting it together, from Zoom performances and streaming concerts to rigorously controlled audiences as small as one for in-person concerts. Language, too, has taken on new inflections in these convulsive times.
Watching and listening to an extraordinary concert by the Dover Quartet, a streaming presentation by Cal Performances at Home, the word “pod” came to mind and took hold. It captures succinctly what a string quartet always is and does. The players gather and connect on the most intimate terms inside a shimmering bubble of their own making. Then the sheen of what they do draws the listener into the light.
It happens now, for the most part, in empty rooms. Far as that may be from the charged atmosphere of chamber music in a tightly packed small space, there’s something bracing about the musicians going it alone, bonded together in their singular pod.
In October, the Dover gathered at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for a masterly program of Haydn, Ligeti, and Dvořák. Filmed and recorded for Cal Performances, the concert debuted on Dec. 10. It’s available on demand through March 10.
Knowing that the four musicians — violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw — first met as Curtis students adds a pleasing overtone. Here they are, back where they started, now as the school’s first-ever Penelope P. Watkins Ensemble-in-Residence. Closing circles is especially gratifying now.
Across the program’s varied repertoire, this cohesive and eloquent quartet found depth, color, lucidity, power, and grace in everything they played. They were serious without taking themselves too seriously. Both violinists wore jackets without ties. A jacketless Shaw played the cello with sleeves rolled half up his forearms. Pajaro-van de Stad sported a bright red tunic.
The Doverites communicated with watchful eyes and a becalmed body language, eschewing any distracting histrionics. Electronic tablet scores on the music stands added to the sense of smooth composure, with no paper pages to flip.
The Haydn Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2, was ebullient without any coy effervescence, sensual yet disciplined, elegant, and sinewy — each facet illuminating the score.
In Ligeti’s Quartet No. 1, Métamorphoses nocturnes (Metamorphosis nocturnes) the players gave its chromatic spirals, taut motifs, lyrical effusions, and abrupt shifts a sense of wonder and mysterioso freshness. Dvořák’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 106, which occupied the second half of the program, was big-boned but not brawny, probing and expansive.
The Haydn, familiarly known as “The Fifths” for its resourceful use of that interval, came first. It took off right away, in an opening Allegro that spun its material into a driving and suspenseful development and scintillating coda. First violin Link gave a lovely soft-tread to the dance-like melody over his partners’ pizzicatos and infused the variations, of which Haydn is perhaps overly fond, with interest. The Menuetto was full of urgent, tensile strength, which carried over to a robust closing Vivace.
Ligeti’s entrancing quartet, which the ensemble was playing for the first time, fulfilled the metamorphic inclinations its subtitle suggests. Although its score proposes a single movement, the Dover played the piece with several distinct pauses, to good effect. Things sunk in. The drama was heightened by the silences.
Eerie glides gave way to a quizzical figure that inexorably turned agitated and frenzied, only to loosen its grip and scuttle away. Second violin Lee offered a tenderly lyrical redirection, which veered into a dense harmonic convergence. A passage of bird-like osculations invoked Messiaen. The players caught thematic fragments from each other and swirled them into a mutual onslaught. A mournful sigh led to a quiescent ending. In this utterly absorbing account of it, Ligeti’s bountifully eventful and inventive work was a marvel of fluid organic transformations.
In the longest of his string quartets, Dvořák’s G Major Op. 106 lays out a grand plan, rich with assertive material, wistful folk tunes, brooding chords, enlivening key changes, and moments of antic abandon. The architecture of it was both complex and accessible in the Dover’s kinetic performance. Everything came alive, shadow and light beautifully contoured.
When they raised their bows in unison at the end of each piece, there wasn’t a sound to be heard in the vacant Philadelphia hall. But it didn’t take much imagination to fill in the noisy ovations these glorious performances earned. Many more, for the fabulous Dover Quartet, are sure to come.