The acclaimed original foursome — Joel Link and Bryan Lee on violins, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt on viola, Camden Shaw on cello — met as students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. They banded together in 2008. But the violist departed the group last summer, replaced by violist Hezekiah Leung.
A sudden change to 25 percent of any group’s personnel, especially with the extreme intimacy required to perform at the highest level, is a seismic shift. That revealing old wisecrack — a string quartet is like a marriage between four people without the fringe benefits — suggests Leung and his colleagues will have a lot of mind-melding and spiritual bonding to do before they find a new equilibrium.
Sunday, they opened with Haydn’s “Kaiser” Quartet, among the most performed from the composer’s vast output in the genre. It was Haydn’s subtlety and brilliance in his string quartets that codified the form for future generations — its conversational nature, its seriousness, and often as the site of many composers’ most searching and profound ideas and emotions, from Beethoven to Debussy to Shostakovich and Steve. Reich.
So with a new member, it was fascinating to hear the Dover in this classic repertoire.
The first movement of the Haydn was especially fleet and bright, played with unified smiles and high spirits. Cellist Shaw, a wondrous musician with an exquisite tone, helped set the mood with his animated drone phrases, the sort of unexpected but just-right interpretative detail that has characterized the group. Their super-perfect balances and sweetness of intonation, with lots of vibrato but never too thick, made it hard to imagine Haydn any better. The on-stage chemistry seems to be in place.
The very hummable second movement, with brief solos from each member backed by the others, was a chance to hear them in isolation. Violinists Link and Lee, distinct in character and sound, dovetailed in style and seemed to match bow pressure and strokes. Shaw’s cello has a warm, quick-witted personality without overshadowing his partners. Violist Leung stood a bit apart, his tone a drop more astringent, his bowing noticeably more stout. These are subtle matters, and they will be resolved with many, many more hours of together time.
The playful and bouncy Menuetto movement was delivered as rhetoric, where you could almost hear it as a speech delivered by a skilled actor, cleanly enunciated. In the Finale, a spritely little figure pops up, played by the first violin. Link had us thinking it was spontaneous, as if they were all surprised and had to react. Moment by moment, they were rediscovering core repertoire. What joy.
But not for everyone. As can happen when a piece of music takes on national importance, a tune can carry the baggage of subsequent history. After writing a stirring hymn for the Austro-Hungarian emperor in 1797, Haydn reworked the hummable theme as the second movement of what became known as the “Kaiser” Quartet. The hymn, with words attached, was adopted as Germany’s national anthem during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s asDeutschland über Alles.” It was later used and badly abused by the Nazis, and remains Germany’s national anthem. (At intermission, an audience member approached me, outraged that the “Kaiser” Quartet was on the program, with its well-known links to Nazi propaganda and horror. It pleaded, in effect: There are so many string quartets by Haydn, why always this one?)
Microphone in hand, cellist Shaw introduced us to Amy Beach’s Quartet for Strings in One Movement, Op. 89, a work the still-undervalued American composer finished in 1929 (but not published till 1994). The Quartet was apparently inspired by three Inuit melodies and refashioned by Beach into her Brahms-influenced, neo-Romantic style—with touches of the modernist harmonies that were ascendant in the early 20th century.
The opening is slow, dense, almost dissonant but gentle. The viola, as our narrator or guide, introduces the first of the main melodies as a hauntingly beautiful lament, and the others fill out the textures. New themes are presented by the viola and expanded upon by the quartet, building to an animated fugal section. There’s a slightly rugged edge to this work, not just as folk music but with an actual outdoorsy feeling. The music eventually starts to shimmer and grow calm toward the end. It’s an extraordinarily lovely and contemplative work, sympathetically performed.
Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 1 10 in E-flat, nicknamed the “Slavonic,” followed intermission. Earthy, full of color and a strong life force, Dvorak’s quartets hold a dual role — which helps explain the enduring popularity of the whole string quartet genre, especially in the 19th century. These works were designed for “friends to get together and crash through them,” as Shaw told the audience, thus publishers were eager to commission works for the domestic music-making market. But the best of them held the kind of insights and power appropriate for concert hall listening.
This iteration of the Dovers played the E-flat Quartet beautifully, with a big, folksy sound, overflowing expression and all the details in place. They brought the gentle nostalgia, with a touch of melancholy, to the fore. Let’s hope Spivey brings them back soon. It will be fascinating, and rewarding, to follow the new foursome on their journey of self-discovery.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington PostLondon’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.
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