BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Opp. 59 Nos. 1-3, 74 & 95 / Dover Quartet / Çedille 90000
This is the second installment in what is to be a complete set of the Beethoven String Quartets played by the relatively young Dover Quartet. Having not heard the early quartets in Vol. 1, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I took a chance on them, and I’m glad I did.
These are very fine modern performances of the quartets, in line with the excellent set made many years ago by the Emerson Quartet: brisk tempi with only very slight modifications to the tempo but also with minute attention to the detail of the dynamics changes, always important in the playing of Beethoven. In comparing them to my favorite set of the complete quartets by the sadly defunct Colorado String Quartet, which I wrote about on this blog as being one of the bargains of the century—you can download the entire set for 99¢(!!)—I found a great many similarities in their approach but one. The Colorado Quartet plays with a bit more breadth in their phrasing, meaning that their moments of rubato are a shade more pronounced, and in that one respect I find their recordings more satisfying upon repeated listening because you never really remember where they slightly elongated a note or two to add some depth to their performances.
The other difference is the recorded sound, and of course in this respect neither the Colorado nor the Dover Quartets probably had much say in this. The Colorado Quartet’s recordings have a warmer sound without defusing the bite of the strings in important moments; it almost sounds as if they were in the room with you. The Dover Quartet’s recordings have a tighter, drier acoustic, which is actually quite good in and of itself, but they tend to sound more like recordings (I’m speaking now of aural ambiance and not of the vitality of their approach) than as if they were in the room with you.
Thus the consumer has a choice between what will undoubtedly be two excellent sets of these important works when the Dover set is finished. If you like your Beethoven with more evident rubato touches—and I admit that the Colorado Quartet’s approach strikes me as the best of both worlds, combining a linear approach with a bit of rhetorical phrasing—the Colorado set will please you more. If you like your Beethoven played somewhat more directly but not lacking in expression or nuance, the Dover recordings will satisfy your desire. If you have infinite shelf space, you may want both sets, since there are obvious contrasts in the shaping and coloring of the music in each. As for me, though I like the Beethoven quartets very much I really don’t listen to all of them very often, but I’m looking forward to hearing what the Dover Quartet will do with the late quartets, which along with the early Op. 18 set always seem to need a somewhat tighter approach than the middle quartets.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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