BEETHOVEN: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 1 (The Opus. 18 Quartets) – Dover Quartet – Cedille CDR 90000 198 (2 CDs), 154:56 *****:
Many years ago, I had a conducting teacher, with whom I was taking a chamber music literature course, talk to me about the wide variety of styles and content of the Beethoven Quartets. I commented on the extreme difficulty of the late quartets, whereas he began to tell me of a conversation he had (he was a violinist) with a member of one of the famous quartets of the time (and I cannot remember which), sometime between 1940 and 1970. He had asked this person about the problems of the quartets, and which one his ensemble found the trickiest. Without hesitation, he looked at my teacher and said, “opus 18, number 1.”
I was perplexed by this, as were other students in the class. Surely the C-sharp minor quarter would rank among the more fiendish pieces of the genre, or any number of other ones. But the first? It hardly seemed plausible. But in later years when reflecting on this comment I began to understand it more. Technical difficulties are only one aspect of the issues considered when navigating these works, and opus 18:1 certainly defines how any quartet must approach these. It is no easy thing to play with Haydnesque elegance, nascent romantic passion, beauty of tone, and finally, that all-elusive quality we call interpretation. Just where to begin with that?
Any time a quartet ensemble attempts these works—and it seems the ones worth their salt all must have a go at them—they feel there is something new or particularly significant they bring to the table. If it is solely an ego trip, say just to prove that they have the mettle to present these works, failure is guaranteed. I know of many sets of the complete quartets that absolutely do not measure up, and no, I am not going to name them! But I will include this set under review as being among the best I have heard, any time or anywhere. There is a reason why the Dover Quartet has been so often compared to the legendary Guarneri. They may not have the burnished warmth of the Alban Berg, the incisive technical precision of the Emerson or the old Juilliard, or even the interpretative finesse of the Budapest. What they do have is a large enough slice of each of these musical pies to put together, at least in these first six, an extraordinary and intensely moving account of each. The Guarneri was known for the “rightness” of its interpretations—they had an instinctive sense of what the essence of any piece was about, and the ability to convey this to the fullest.
The Dover has inherited this ability, showing remarkably consistent and rewarding readings of the highest caliber. These are finnicky quartets, straddling the ripe classicism of the age while propelling the new romantic ethos that ofttimes seeks to supercharge the perfection to which composers like Mozart, and especially Haydn, had brought to the genre—Haydn on steroids, if you will. Yet the Dover senses when to put their foot on the gas, and when to slow down and reflect a bit, making for a set of enormous consequence and great affability. Cedille has captured them to perfection in sparkling sound, and these two-plus hours of great music making go by in a flash. A brilliant collection, well worth acquiring no matter how many others you have, and I can’t wait for volume 2!
For more information about this ensemble, please visit the Dover Quartet website: