Fort Worth — Now at 10-going-on-11 years since its founding by students at the Curtis Institute in 2008, the Dover Quartet has raced forward in recent seasons to become one of the most admired string quartets in the world. Saturday afternoon at the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the group, as close to “hot” as a string quartet can become, performed in Fort Worth for the second time in less than 12 months under the sponsorship of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.
Named for a piece of music named for a poem named for a spot on the English coast (to be exact, Dover beach, the inspiration for Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach and Samuel Barber’s setting of the poem), the Quartet had, on its previous visit, explored two 20th-century masterpieces—Barber’s Quartet in B and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2—along with that always intriguing byway of 19th-century romanticism, Smetana’s autobiographical “In My Life” Quartet. This time around, the musicians of the Dover took a chronologically backward journey through romanticism, exploring quintessential as well as unexpected aspects of three composers.
The beautifully solid, immaculately pure tone quality the ensemble produces proved ideal for this repertoire. First violin Joel Link leads the group with an assertiveness just this side of the presence of a great soloist; second violin Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw, all technically Link’s equal, collaborate with him to produce a timbre that seems somehow indescribably “right” for the quartet repertoire, in a way few ensembles achieve.
First up on the program, the group turned to a surprisingly romantic, lyrical “Langsamer Satz” (“Slow Movement”) from 1905 by Anton Webern—surprising, because Webern is known mostly for the body of succinct, adamantly dissonant, and solidly academic music. (In other words, stuff that a huge portion of the classical music audience—not, BTW, this listener—instinctively finds puzzling and unlikeable.) Though one can go to concerts and recitals for decades without hearing a note of Webern’s music, his influence on the music of the 20th century was profound, to the point that much of the music of the second half of the past century was labeled “post-Webernist.”
Anyone expecting only uncompromised atonality based on past experience with Webern was here greeted with passionately tuneful, sometimes dreamy music which at times could be mistaken for Brahms or Mendelssohn. The range of emotions here demands in particular a huge dynamic range, which the musicians of the Dover Quartet managed with flawless control.
Moving back from the early 20th century to the high romanticism of the late 19th century, the concert arrived at a more predictable Tchaikovsky, with that composer’s Quartet No 3 in E-flat from 1876. Here, Tchaikovsky opens in an even more Russian mood than usual, giving first violinist Link an opportunity to soar over a pizzicato accompaniment; as the first movement progressed, these musicians once again demonstrated their flawless precision in stirring chordal passages as well as perfect command of the stormy material of the development section.
The group’s almost symphonic resonance, which can be regarded as one of their signature aspects, came to the fore in the Allegretto second movement; in the third movement funeral march, they achieved an equally impressive organ-like timbre. They returned to that rich fullness of sound for the generally joyful Finale, including a magnificently controlled ensemble accelerando near the end.
After intermission, the program backed up even further chronologically with the early romanticism of Schubert’s Quartet in G of 1826. Here, nearing the end of his life, Schubert opens with an almost non-Schubertian aggressiveness before launching the widely varied adventures of a purely Schubertian melody. The Dover Quartet continued to practice its razor-sharp precision, its gloriously rich sound, and the ability of each musician to seize a moment of individual musical rapture when called on to do so—ranging from the exclamations of the second movement to the delicate, Mendelssohnian filigree work (and almost sentimental melodicism) of the third, to the operatic energy of the finale.
Unconfirmed rumor in the crowd at the concert held that the Dover Quartet will back on this series soon in an upcoming season. Their return would be very welcome; and, while their programing has been flawless in concept so far, it would be equally engaging to hear them push back into the classical era or forward into the music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Whatever they should choose to play, however, will surely be welcomed by Fort Worth’s growing entourage hard-core Dover enthusiasts, a group of which I am definitely a member.