Review: Dover Quartet

Oct. 6, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Dover Quartet, performing in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series, offered a subtly didactic pairing of two German string quartets on either side of the romantic-modernist divide.

Brahms’ Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67, and Hindemith’s Quartet No. 3 in C major, Op. 16, were composed 45 years apart (1875 and 1920, respectively) and are largely dissimilar in tonal character; but both are constructed in much the same way, elaborating on melodic cells and figures that sound to be introductions to or internal parts of otherwise unstated tunes.

George Bernard Shaw famously charged that Brahms wrote “a string of incomplete dance and ballad tunes following one another with no more organic coherence than the succession of passing images reflected in a shop window.” Shaw was wrong about organic coherence – Brahms certainly knew how to construct beginnings, middles and ends – but the critic was spot-on in his observation on how melodic material appears, apparently in progress, and disappears before resolution in many of Brahms’ works, including this quartet.

Hindemith’s cells of tunes likewise come and go in his Third Quartet, and run a gauntlet of chromatic harmonies; but the coherence of this piece is strikingly similar to that of the Brahms.

The Dover – violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw – essayed both pieces with clarity and a tonal warmth that underlined the similarities of the composers’ sound pictures. Also striking was the group’s integration of silences into musical arguments.

Pajaro-van de Stadt was a robust and highly lyrical voice in the third, agitato movement of the Brahms, which amounts to a miniature viola sonata, while cellist Shaw projected an unusually resonant bass voice in both quartets.

The group’s treatment of the Hindemith stressed its peculiar contrast of romantic form and expressive techniques with modernist harmonic touches.

The ensemble opened the program with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, one of the composer’s most explicit homages to J.S. Bach and other baroque masters – so true to the idiom that many listeners might flunk a blindfold test on who composed the work. The Dover’s presentation of the adagio was starkly expressive, and its explication of the fugue was an expert balancing act in exposing distinct instrumental voices.

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