Pasa Review Dover Quartet
Lensic Performing Arts Center, Sept. 28
The Dover Quartet might want to acquire a time share in town, so often have its members been traipsing through these parts. No complaint; this is one of the finest American string quartets on the scene, a group that sets the bar high when it comes to rock-solid musical fundamentals and interpretation that is at once tasteful and imaginative. The silver-toned foursome brought this year’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival to a close on Aug. 21, and just five weeks later they returned to the stage of the Lensic Performing Arts Center in a concert jointly sponsored by the festival and Performance Santa Fe. They were joined by double-bass player Edgar Meyer, who is among the world’s leading practitioners of that massive instrument.
The program opened with a sparkling performance of the Divertimento in D major (K.136/125a), one of three such works Mozart wrote in his native Salzburg in early 1772, about when he was fifteen going on sixteen. It is very likely that it would have been performed then by an ensemble comprising two violins, viola, and double bass, a grouping sometimes called the “divertimento quartet” or “Salzburg quartet.” Here, Meyer joined all four of the Dover’s players, such that the lowest line was doubled by cello and bass. This could easily have yielded bottom-heavy results, but the quartet’s cellist, Camden Shaw, approached his part with restraint, basically adding definition to attacks without skewing the balance. The reading conveyed all the vim and vigor one could ask for.
Shaw and Meyer proceeded on to a curiosity: the Duetto for Cello and Double Bass by Rossini, who composed it in 1824 for an affluent amateur cellist in London who aspired to play a duet with Domenico Dragonetti, the most renowned double-bass virtuoso of that time. Rossini was always up for a hearty laugh, and indeed there is a good deal of opera buffa inthis piece. But it doesn’t trade solely in guffaws; it also mines both the lyrical and coloratura possibilities of the two low-pitched instruments. On the page, the piece is black with notes, but these instrumentalists handled it with consummate virtuosity. Shaw played elegantly and with a light touch on the florid upper line. Especially in the middle movement, a relaxed
Andante molto, he proved to be a true bel-canto cellist. The Dover foursome, unassisted, performed Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1, the least often encountered of his six. Composed in 1908-1909, this specimen of turn-of-the-century, post-Wagnerian yearning was the work of a very serious young man — one, moreover, who had just had his heart broken. Bartók had not yet mastered the sure-footed pacing or rhythmic verve of his ensuing quartets, but even this work offers glimpses of his future music, particularly through some melodic Magyarisms that are most pronounced in the last movement. The Dover’s handsome sound served the piece’s febrile quality, but a judicious infusion of grittiness might ultimately strengthen the case for what can be a meandering work, reminiscent of slightly earlier chamber pieces by Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. To conclude, all five musicians teamed up for a composition by the evening’s double bassist, Meyer’s Quintet for Strings. A full-scale, four-movement piece, it proved pleasant and entertaining. Its insistently pentatonic melodies recalled Dvoˇrák, its “wide-open-spaces” textures saluted Copland, and its fundamental harmonic stasis could evoke Hovhaness — all this in addition to touches of jazz and bluegrass. Meyer is obviously a master of string figuration, which kept the work’s surface lively and engaging, and — no surprise — he provided impressive exposure for the double bass, which part he handled with surpassing aptitude.
The four pieces had an agreeable flow, adding up to a concert of sonic and stylistic variety. The audience was left in some confusion by the shortcomings of the printed program, which found space for 2,000 words of manager-supplied biographies about the performers but not a single syllable about the pieces performed, apart from their titles. Listing the individual movements of a piece, denoted by relevant headings, is a bare minimum for a printed program at a classical music concert. An exception could be made if performers chose instead to share this information verbally, but they did no speaking on this evening. Lacking that information, listeners are bound to respond as they did here; they rendered extended applause after the first movement of the Rossini Duetto under the assumption that the piece was over — when, in fact, it still had two further movements to go. When the clapping subsided and the players continued with the piece, there was a certain amount of head-scratching in the hall. Of course, the primary responsibility of any concert is to purvey good music well played, and in that regard the evening was a complete success.
This is one of the finest American string quartets on the scene, a group that sets the bar high when it comes to rock-solid musical fundamentals and interpretation that is at once tasteful and imaginative.