At last the final Beethoven installment from the Dover Quartet is here. And what a fantastic complete set it is.
At last, the Dover Quartet completes their Beethoven cycle with Volume 3 in the series. And lucky for us, they managed to get that done before losing their violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, who announced earlier this year that at the conclusion of the summer concert tour she was leaving the group and moving on to "bigger and better things". (What could possibly be "better" than playing with these guys?!) The Dover now have a new viola player on deck to play with them for a one-year trial period. I will be most interested to hear what happens.
Unfortunately, they had not yet begun these latest recording sessions before losing their recording/sound engineer at Cedille Records, Bruce Egre, who was responsible for the amazing recorded sound heard in their previous recordings. So I was somewhat apprehensive about what I would hear in this new set. I needn't have worried; the sound continues to be among the very best.
This review applies to the complete set - issued on 8 CDs in 3 Volumes, in 2019, 2021 and 2022. I reviewed this group's 2nd installment earlier this year and some of those observations are repurposed here, as they apply to the complete set as a whole. Thus I'll begin with the exact same statement that I started with before: I'm so moved by the Dover Quartet's playing of these Quartets I am literally left speechless. This is simply some of the most heartfelt, joyous and life-affirming Beethoven I have ever experienced; thus it is difficult to describe in words.
Listening to this newest volume, I hear nothing to change that view and plenty to confirm it.
Starting with the basics, all the hallmarks which make the Dover Quartet so incredibly special are in evidence - primarily a unified approach which many quartets simply cannot equal. 1) Their ability to play with crisp, clean, incisive precision of articulation, unified as if just one player, is not only phenomenal, it is thrilling; 2) their unified command of dynamics; 3) a musical expression which is involving and vigorous, and at all times imbued with a marvelous sweetness of tone; and 4) a unified blend and uniform tonality.
It's also how these players can vary their tone and vibrato intensity as musically appropriate. There is a lightness of touch here, followed by a vigorous fortissimo there, and the variety and contrasts are stunning. Further, in those passages when they play with minimal vibrato, the sound does not result in a bright, icy thinness of tone which is so often heard. Even without vibrato, their tone remains sweet and expressive. And it is positively glorious.
Further, there is a pervading naturalness to their musical expression which is breathtaking. Many groups try so hard - to sound larger than life, or go out of their way to make a musical point. But the Dover Quartet is so very accomplished, and their musicianship so finely tuned, that the music is always the priority.
As I noted in my previous review of the Dover Quartet, the playing of 1st violinist, Joel Link, is exceptional. And that certainly continues in this latest set of recordings. His sweet tone and singing lines are the heart of these performances. Yet, it's the precision of articulation in the inner voices (2nd violin/viola) and a lightness of touch from the cello which really drive these readings - with involvement, energy and propulsion. That these 4 musicians can so successfully and consistently play as one is extraordinary. This is string quartet playing which redefines the art - not only for its perfection, but for its sheer musicianship and musical involvement.
Tempos, always such an important ingredient in Beethoven, are perfectly chosen all through this set - alive, involving and invigorating. There is never a hint of routine; every phrase is infused with life and spontaneity. Slow movements are kept moving with momentum and sweeping lines, never weighted down unnecessarily with excess emoting, though fervent musical expression permeates every phrase. All the drama of Beethoven is there, with boundless energy and power, but there's also an intimacy which makes this music, as played by the Dover Quartet, go straight to the heart.
And with their recording of the late Beethoven Quartets comes poise - a distinct maturity and depth of insight joining all the irresistible freshness and invigoration heard in the earlier works. And this group's commanding dynamic range continues to be impressive, bringing an involvement rarely encountered. And while transparency and clarity of inner textures remain primary factors, their singular blend creates a sound just rich enough to provide a touch of gravitas perfectly suited to these Quartets.
Instantly with Opus 127 on disc one, a fervent introspection pervades the music-making, which is touching and powerfully moving. Opus 130, then, is just as elegant and compelling as one could ever wish. The scope and variety of characterization and expression here - and in Op 131 - are truly captivating. And with the final two, the Dover find an even greater rhapsodic soaring to the melodic lines - never too intense, and never sacrificing any of the qualities noted before. They even manage to relate them more than usually to the Symphonies. For instance, the slow movement of the Ninth came to mind during the heartfelt Adagio of Op 132, while the Sixth was definitely conjured up in the Vivace of Op 135.
All through these mature works there is never a sense this group is pushing to sound bigger than they are. They create contrasts with whispering pianissimos followed by sudden fortes, without ever sounding deliberately grandiose or at all forced. As noted before, it's an utter naturalness to the music-making which is remarkable. This is emotional Beethoven without the heaviness.
Two final observations which are of extreme importance to me must be made. As a musician and collector, I am thrilled the Dover Quartet and Cedille Records have seen fit to record and release these Quartets in chronological order. This makes for easy navigation and adds enormously to overall musical enjoyment. Moreover, there is a consistency from start to finish which is unmatched in my experience listening to recorded Beethoven cycles.
And last, but certainly not least, is the superlative recorded sound which plays such an important role in the success of this set. As mentioned above, a change in recording engineer has not affected the new release in the slightest. Cedille continues to provide sound which exemplifies all the musical characteristics described above. Indeed, the recorded sound afforded this quartet is simply spectacular in its ability to illuminate all the qualities I cherish in their playing. There is an immediacy and palpable presence, without ever being at all pushy or gruff, plus a spectacular (but realistic) dynamic range and a 3-dimensional realism which bring the performances into one's listening room as in a live performance. The end result is one of the most immersive, musically rewarding and completely satisfying recordings of a string quartet I have yet heard.
I listen to a lot of string quartet music and I've listened to many complete Beethoven sets. And I can confidently proclaim that the Dover Quartet's Beethoven is second to none. The playing is transcendent and the recorded sound is as good as it gets. This is a monumental achievement by one of the best string quartets playing today.