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ARCHIVE: Dover String Quartet (April 2019)

Originally published 4/10/2019

Tuesday evening, Chamber Music Houston presented the Dover Quartet at Stude Concert Hall. The program, titled “Love Stories,” featured works by Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and Robert Schumann. While the pieces were inspired by the composers’ love interests, the concert itself was a prime example of why we love classical music performed by a top string quartet.

The Dover Quartet began their program with Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” (Slow Movement), written in 1905 when the composer was 21 years old. Its composition followed a hiking holiday Webern took with his cousin and later wife, and expresses the wide range of emotions associated with love. Harmonically it is an early tonal work, predating the atonal compositions that were to follow. In terms of input and output it is similar to “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), by Webern’s friend and mentor Arnold Schoenberg. Both works show a mastery of chromatic harmony that, once exhausted, led to the atonal music of the Second Viennese School. With violinist Joel Link nd violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt serving as the main protagonists, the quartet projected all of the colors and emotions that the piece offers. The performance was so compelling and complete that had it stood alone it would have made for a satisfying musical evening.

While the Webern movement has a song in its heart, Berg’s “Lyric Suite” has that, along with a conversational, dialectic quality. It also has a hidden program– Berg’s love for a married woman, Hanna Fuchs, secretly expressed in the quartet and uncovered 50 years after its writing. Cellist Camden Shaw, sporting a shaved head and shaped beard, stood and introduced the work, calling it one of the quartet’s favorite pieces. (Berg's Op. 3 and the 6th movement of the Lyric Suite were the first pieces they played as a quartet at Curtis ten years ago!) Their performance of the complete six movement work showed an incredible commitment of time and effort in order to reveal all of the work’s complexities and overcome its vast technical challenges. The quartet’s fluid execution of potentially disjointed lines and rhythms, their impeccable balance in complex textures, and their sheer tonal beauty combined to give this great but somewhat underserved work an ideal performance– one where you felt privileged to be hearing it. While each movement was exceptional, of particular note was the third movement– Allegro misterioso– a fleet-footed virtuosic display done in whispers and gestures, and performed with jaw-dropping brilliance.

Schumann’s String Quartet in A-major is one of three quartets composed over five weeks in 1842, and presented to his wife Clara on her 23rd birthday. A descending fifth motif gives this quartet its nickname, “Clara.” Schumann, the dean of German romantic composers, was typically conservative in terms of musical form and expression. Schumann’s structure-based writing does not play itself, which often results in angular, less than satisfying performances. The A-major quartet holds some of his most passionate writing and is also the most challenging. The first movement’s second theme has a syncopated accompaniment more suited to alternating hands on a keyboard. The second movement has syncopated rhythms and accents that require finesse and impeccable timing. The fourth movement contains a unison dotted rhythm similar to the final movement of Sibelius' violin concerto. These technical hurdles were played to perfection. The Dover Quartet gave a cohesive, flowing account that allowed the listener to focus on the music rather than the execution.

The heart of the quartet is the third movement, a passionate love letter to his beloved wife, Clara Wieck Schumann. She must have been an extraordinary woman, given that she maintained the attention and affections of the two foremost German symphonic composers of the 19th century– her husband Robert and Johannes Brahms. This movement was the high point of the evening. It was also the ideal vehicle for the Dover Quartet’s spectacular violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. While it is not entirely proper to single out a member of a chamber ensemble, in this case I must make an exception. Milena proves the rule that every great string quartet has a great violist. Her energy, accuracy, and compelling tonal presence help define this quartet. Simply put, you will not hear a better representative of the instrument anywhere in the world.

Beginning with the first performance, classical music works evolve as technical and musical challenges are visualized and realized. The Dover Quartet is setting new standards of quartet playing even as they themselves are evolving. Hearing them perform at Rice University several years ago, I remarked that they were set to assume the legacy of the Guarneri Quartet. The Dovers have since gone beyond Guarneri 2.0. They still have a tonally individual yet cohesive style of playing, but there is now an added dimension of freedom of expression, shared equally by all four members. Music starts with the mind of the composer, is distributed among the requisite parts, and then should return to a single-minded purpose and execution. This string quartet has shown it is able to achieve that lofty artistic goal, and that is what makes them so great. I am excited to see where Dover 2.0 will lead us.

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