Certainly the Dover’s interpretation was marked by clearly plotted phrases and carefully sculpted articulation, but the group’s trademark is really its sonority.
The Dover Quartet got only one slot in which to appear as the distinctive ensemble it is, with no extra colleagues. They chose another Czech work for its half-hour in the spotlight, Smetana’s Quartet No. 1, performed on Aug. 18. This autobiographical work, titled works its way through chapters of happiness and sadness, with the first movement (as the composer explained) depicting “my youthful leanings toward art, the Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning about my future fortune.” The Dovers captured all of that, imbuing the movement with a nervous melancholy that was a splendid match for their essential sound. The second movement, a sort of polka that “brings to my mind the joyful days of youth,” skipped from phrase to phrase with compelling momentum, lightly tipsy through the presumed consumption of Pilsner, with the cello even letting loose a mirthful musical belch toward the end. The third movement — “the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my wife” — was a study in tenderly nuanced whispering. The finale involves “the discovery that I could treat national elements in music” and Smetana’s reveling in this path until the music was stilled by the sudden onset of deafness, symbolized here by a sustained high note from the first violin, an evocation of tinnitus. At that point, the melancholy music from the quartet’s beginning resurfaces, the mystery of its foreboding explained.
This was a top-drawer performance. Certainly the Dover’s interpretation was marked by clearly plotted phrases and carefully sculpted articulation, but the group’s trademark is really its sonority. Shrillness is never allowed to intrude on the violins’ tone — even the “tinnitus note” was invested with a degree of beauty — and the timbres of the two violins are matched to an uncanny degree. Ingratiating as the “nationalist” passages of the fourth movement were, the Dover didn’t possess quite the native spirit of the greatest Czech string quartets — the Talich, the Panocha, the Pražák, or the long-gone, greatly revered Smetana Quartet — but they came close to it. With its burnished patina, its inbred elegance, and its naturalness of musical expression, the Dover is emerging as the most Central European-sounding of American quartets. Of all the music I heard at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival this summer, the Dover Quartet’s performance of Smetana’s First Quartet was hands down the finest.