I've been asking myself why I haven't yet reviewed the Dover Quartet's second set of Beethoven String Quartets. (And I wrote only a cursory review of the first set a year or so ago.) I don't have a good answer. I absolutely love them - both sets. So why am I not writing about them?
To try to answer that, I decided to listen to them again today and commit to putting some words together. Listening to the Opus 59s (Razumovsky #1-3), I think I know why I haven't yet reviewed them. 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.
So let's start with the basics. All the hallmarks of the Dover Quartet which make them so incredibly special are in evidence - primarily a unified approach which many quartets simply cannot begin to 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 simply thrilling; 2) their unified command of dynamics; 3) a musical expression which is at once involving and vigorous, and at all times imbued with a marvelous sweetness of tone; and 4) a unified blend and uniform tonality.
Getting into more detail, the Dovers can vary their tone and vibrato intensity as musically appropriate. There is a lightness of tone here, followed by a vigorous fortissimo there, and the contrasts are stunning. Further, in those passages when they play with minimal vibrato, the sound does not result in a bright, wiry, unpleasant thinness of tone which is so often heard. (And there is no reason or musical justification for that to ever be the case.) Even without vibrato, their tone remains sweet and expressive. And it is lovely.
There is a pervading naturalness to their musical expression which is simply overwhelming. Many groups try so hard, to sound larger than life, or go out of their way to make a musical point. The Dover never stoops to such nonsense. Their playing is so very accomplished, and their musicianship so finely tuned, that the music is always the priority.
Combining all these elements in Beethoven brings a musical immersion that I simply have never before experienced in these works. After all the superlative playing qualities are identified, it's the music-making which counts. And in Beethoven, the Dover is indeed superlative.
Tempos, always such an important ingredient, are perfectly chosen - alive, involving and invigorating. Slow movements are kept moving with momentum and sweeping lines, never weighted down unnecessarily with excess emoting. Fervent musical expression permeates every phrase. All the drama of Beethoven is there, but there's also an intimacy which makes this music, as played by the Dovers, go straight to the heart.
As to the individual playing and the blend into the whole, this is a group of equals, rather than being "led" by the 1st violin. That being said, there is no denying the playing of 1st violinist, Joel Link, is marvelous. His sweet tone and singing lines are the heart of these performances. But it's the precision of articulation in the inner voices (2nd violin/viola) that really drives these readings, with propulsion and energy. And I love how second violinist Bryan Lee's rich, textured sound blends seamlessly with that of the viola, solidifying the critical mid-range. And, last but certainly not least, it is the cellist, Camden Shaw, who provides the foundation which ultimately makes all the sonic superlatives possible. His wooden tone is expressive and naturally full-bodied, but never gruff or overblown. He plays with the same lightness of touch (when necessary) and precision of articulation as the smaller instruments, but then can also produces a fortissimo which remains completely realistic and never overbearing. He's simply one more important contributor to the musical fabric - not more than that.
That these 4 musicians can so successfully and consistently play as one is absolutely remarkable. Their music-making is simply breathtaking.
Lastly, there's one more person involved here who is equally responsible for the superlatives described above. Enormous credit must be given to the recording engineer, the late Bruce Egre, for providing sound which supports and exemplifies these musical characteristics so magnificently. The recorded sound afforded this quartet is simply second to none when it comes to revealing all the qualities I cherish in their playing. There is an immediacy and presence, with a realistically wide dynamic range without ever being at all forward or gruff, along with a 3-dimensional realism, which bring the performances into one's listening room as if hearing them in a live performance. I read with great interest the biography of Mr. Egre (within his obituary) and learned he was also the founder of Cleveland-based Azica Records. This is fascinating because I find that label to consistently exhibit the same spectacular recorded sound I hear from Cedille Records. And now I know why. A seriously gifted man was involved with both labels. And the world has lost a true master of the art of recorded acoustic sound.
I listen to a lot of string quartet music. And I've listened to several complete Beethoven sets just over the past couple of years. So comparisons are inevitable. I have enjoyed recordings from the likes of the Belcea Quartet on Zig-Zag/Alpha Classics, Miro Quartet on Pentatone, Artemis Quartet on Virgin, Quatuor Ebene on Warner/Erato, and the Tokyo Quartet on Harmonia Mundi. (Even the Tokyo's earlier set for RCA is excellent.) However, as good as they are, I seem to always have a nit to pick along the way - occasionally with the interpretations, often with the recorded sound, only rarely with the actual playing itself (which was certainly the case with the Lindsay String Quartet's ASV reissue on Eloquence, which was nearly impossible to endure). But not with the Dover Quartet. Their Beethoven is, simply, perfection. As is the recorded sound. I cannot wait for the next installment.
In my view, 3 recordings effectively redefine the art of string quartet playing today: the Escher Quartet's Mendelssohn (BIS), the Quatuor Hanson's Dutilluex & Ligeti (Aparte), and the Dover Quartet's Beethoven (Cedille).