Fort Worth — Less than a decade after coming together as a student ensemble at the Curtis Institute, the Dover Quartet is emerging as the leading string quartet of its generation. Saturday afternoon at the Kimbell Art Museum, the audience at a concert sponsored of the Dover Quartet, sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, found out why this ensemble is making waves in the classical music world.
In this case, “breathtaking” is hardly hyperbole: one could sense stunned amazement among those present at the sheer magnificence of the group’s performance—and in the enthusiastic intermission chatter from an audience including a high portion of sophisticated chamber music connoisseurs. A gorgeous, resonant texture became evident in the opening moment as the group launched Barber’s String Quartet No. 1. Violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw are each among the greatest practitioners of their respective instruments, as would be demonstrated repeatedly during the concert; together, they create a distinctive sound that presents a symphonic presence—and a precision comparable to the world’s leading orchestras—while preserving the integrity of chamber music.
Barber’s Quartet No. 1 is just about the only quartet by an American composer to gain a foothold in the standard quartet repertoire. (The slow middle movement has a life of its own in an arrangement for string orchestra as the iconic “Adagio for Strings”—one of those pieces even people who don’t know they know it know.) Because of the fame of the Adagio, the outer movements can come across as book ends—and, in a performance by string quartet, the central Adagio itself can feel lean and undernourished, simply because any listener will mentally hear and compare with the symphonic version. In this performance, thanks to the sheer solidity of tone and flawless precision of the ensemble, the Adagio movement came across with its potential emotional impact completely intact, and the three-movement work as a whole maintained a logical structure.
Late romantic Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s autobiographical Quartet in E minor (“From my Life”) followed; any classical music lover would be inevitably reminded Smetana’s iconic tone poem Die Moldau as well as the Bohemian classicism of his close friend Dvořák. Here, the Dover Quartet continued its flawless journey; high points included the tipsy folkishness and sentiment of the second movement, pulled off magnificently, and the extended cello solo at the beginning of the Largo, radiant with unapologetic romanticism.
After intermission, the ensemble returned with Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2, once again preserving the sense of intimate emotion with a grandeur, variety, and beauty of tone different from but equal to that of a symphony orchestra. First violinist Link captured the glory in the second movement in this rhapsodic aria for violin, while the other three instruments performed the less obvious but equally daunting task of presenting a quietly sustained chordal backdrop. The group matched Shostakovich’s turbulent third movement—a manic, crazed waltz—with a uniquely dark timbre; in the finale, each of the four took a turn in the spotlight in the gradually intensifying variations of the emotionally monumental final movement.
The Dover Quartet named itself after composer (and fellow Curtis alumnus) Barber’s Dover Beach for quartet and baritone, a setting of 19th-century British poet Matthew Arnold’s poem of the same name. Arnold’s words evoke the power of the individual and of love in a troubled world; by choosing this reference as their name—whether in regard to the composer or to the text—this ensemble has set for itself a high philosophical standard.
Saturday’s performance demonstrated that they are playing, both technically and emotionally, on a level worthy of all the implications of that name.