The Dover Quartet Plays Schumann

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SCHUMANN: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Dover Quartet: Joel Link, Bryan Lee, vln; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, vla; Camden Shaw, cel / Azica ACD-71331

The Dover Quartet is a relatively young group of musicians who, like 90% of classical performers, stick to playing the old-timey stuff because it continues to sell. Nonetheless, this CD is a very welcome one as Schumann’s string quartets aren’t nearly as well known as those of Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms.

The group uses the by-now-patented style for modern string quartets: relatively brisk tempi with only a few subtle modifications in terms of rubato or portamento, and a bright, clear sound profile with taut, edgy attacks in the more aggressive passages. As it turns out, however, this is absolutely perfect for Schumann, whose music was not only edgier than that of Schubert or Brahms but also far less predictable in its musical direction. Because he suffered from cognitive and mental problems for most of his short life, Schumann never thought in a crystal-clear, linear fashion; his music contains sudden mood shifts and a more discursive musical pattern than that of his contemporaries, which is the one feature in it that relates to modern music.

I was utterly captivated by the Dover Quartet’s readings of this music. Their performance style makes sense, pays close attention to dynamics markings and mood shifts, and in addition to all this is emotionally committed. In addition, I really liked the sound quality of this recording: very forward miking but with just enough space around the instruments to give the quartet a realistic sound.

Some listeners prefer the Pacifica Quartet on Çedille, and they’re very good but not quite as gripping as Dover. In general, these performances are closer in style to the equally touted versions by the Emerson Quartet on Pentatone Classics. Comparing the two groups, I found only a few minor differences in phrasing an approach, certianly not enough to give Emerson so high of an edge over Dover. Just listen, for instance, to the second-movement “Scherzo” in the first quartet for an example of what I mean. The Dover players do a superb job of contrasting the lively, rhythmically edgy main theme to the more lyrical and discursive middle section, allowing themselves to indulge in a slightly broader portamento than the more famous Emerson players, and believe it or not, this IS historically correct (the constant straight tone is not). This more relaxed (but not insipid) approach can also be heard in the slow movements, which Dover caress with the care of a lover. You can almost feel that these movements were written as love paens to his beloved Clara. And in the last movement of this quartet, Dover brings out a quality I’d never noticed in the music before, more Czech than German.

This recording is now my favorite of these not-so-popular works, and I recommend it highly.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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