The Dover Quartet opened the 2019 installment of the Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival in a fantastic way on Friday evening with compelling performances of classical and contemporary string quartets by Tchaikovsky, Bates, and Schubert. Northwestern’s Bienen School hosts the Winter Chamber Music Festival over three weekends in January. Programs highlight younger, emerging ensembles and feature classical and modern music from all over the world. Currently serving as the quartet in residence for the Bienen School, the Dover Quartet typifies the talent one might expect from a festival concert.
On Friday night, this reviewer knew he was in for a treat when, from the very beginning, the Dover Quartet breathed vitality into a work that hadn’t previously resonated with him. Peter Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3, op. 30, in the very unusual key of e-flat minor, employs an equally unusual structure that never seemed to make sense. It opens with a very quiet, slow introduction in the sunny key of B-flat major, and only gradually gives way to its minor key, up-tempo home. Even then, it reverts back to B-flat major before it finally reaches a stormy climax. Thematically, the musical material never seemed especially inspiring when placed in this context.
The Dover showed how it all fit together, approaching the opening with a very careful touch and whiff of wistfulness. It had a calming feel, but sinister undercurrent. As the music switched back and forth between major and minor, the players gradually brought out the changes in intensity in perfect step with the music. When the first climactic moment came, they were ready for the full force. These carefully shifting moods was a showcase of subtlety and finesse.
The players handled the second movement, a fun scherzo, very well, especially the melodic descent formed by single notes passed between the instruments. In the third movement, a slow funeral dirge, the ensemble showed a great deal of resonance, even with their instruments muted. While this reviewer is still not a fan of the work, the Dover Quartet kept it very interesting.
Cellist Camden Shaw introduced the next piece, From Amber Frozen, a 2005 composition for string quartet by contemporary composer, lounge DJ, and electronic musician Mason Bates. It is a fascinating work. It starts with each player rhythmically plucking single notes that eventually form a melody. As the work progresses, the players individually switch from plucking to bowing, sounding notes and harmonic overtones, textured rustling on the instruments’ bridge, or rhythmic thumping on their instruments. They briefly come together, quietly bowing together in chords to a distinctive rhythm and melody, only to split up again. The music breaks down at the end, which is seemingly bereft of pitch as the cello loosens its strings.
The Dover players carefully affected this strange concoction. Forming a rhythmically consistent melody made up of individual notes played sequentially by each musician requires precision and tight ensemble interplay. Bates did not randomly throw the sounds together, but instead created a carefully woven aural fabric. The ensemble reproduced the effect beautifully.
After intermission, the Dover Quartet performed Franz Schubert’s fifteenth and final String Quartet, in G-major, D.887. This piece exhibits many of the tendencies common to several works Schubert wrote toward the end of his short life. Namely, his music was growing in scale and taking on ever more elaborate melodic inventions and deeper harmonic interplay. To pull this off, he extends and contorts the work’s basic musical building blocks into different shapes and distant keys. It sometimes feels a bit overextended, but it always comes back to a very satisfying conclusion. As is the case of several other late works, this particular piece is filled with dramatic tension interspersed with light and dainty passages that the Dover Quartet executed brilliantly. They displayed polished musicianship and tight ensemble interaction, as if they had been playing together for decades.
The opening G-major chord starts quietly, but builds in intensity and eventually shifts into a series of dark and foreboding chords. It is very easy for these brusque sounds to come across as harsh and rough, but the ensemble showed great musical awareness when it gave the chords a tad bit of softness that allowed the music to sound more clearly, while still contrasting sharply with the calmer material.
After several similar passages, Schubert brings out a lovely melody that, throughout the movement, each instrument plays individually while backed up by the others playing rapid but quiet chords. The second instrument to go is the cello, but the tune seems destined for a note that is well below that instrument’s range, when the others join in to finish the phrase with a wonderful display of fanfare and pomp. In this and all other sections, each member of the ensemble displayed wonderful musicianship.
The Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival continues tonight, Sunday, January 13, with violinist James Ehnes joining pianist Andrew Armstrong in a program of Beethoven violin sonatas that includes the marvelous Sonata No. 10, in G-major, Op. 96. Next Friday, January 18, the Gryphon Trio will be making its festival debut with excellent piano trios by Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms. On the following Sunday, January 20, the Catalyst Quartet will be making their festival debut with modern music from South America that includes string quartets by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, and Alberto Ginastera.
The festival ends the following weekend with the Jupiter Quartet performing two of the greatest string quartets ever written: Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in a-minor, op. 13, and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, in c-sharp minor, op. 131, on Friday, January 25. Filling the unenviable slot between these two masterpieces is a modern work, Ainsi la nuit, by French composer Henri Dutilleux.
Two days later the festival finishes with Bienen faculty Gerardo Ribeiro, Helen Callus, José Ramón Méndez, James Giles and John Thorne joining guest cellist Stephen Balderston and pianist Kay Kim. The program includes an early cello sonata by Beethoven, a flute sonata by Samuel Zyman, and a piano quartet by and Sergei Taneyev.
All concerts take place on the campus of Northwestern University in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 7:30pm.