Maverick Concerts’ Music Director Alexander Platt has lived year-round in Chicago for some time, and he frequently brings musicians from Chicago to Woodstock. The Dover Quartet has been here before but not for a while. It gave us a program with a highly interesting novelty.
Recently I wrote that the Escher Quartet seemed to play as if its ideal were a single instrument with sixteen strings. The Dover’s warm and rich homogeneity instantly produced the same impression. This constitutes neither a virtue nor a liability, as I can enjoy ensembles which seek uniformity or diversity.
The opening movement of Schumann’s String Quartet No. 2, in F, Op. 41, No. 2 was impulsive and involving. I don’t understand why the composer labeled his second movement “Andante Quasi Variazioni” as it seems like straightforward variation form. Although we remember Schumann largely as an innovator in musical spontaneity, he was a considerable master of classical form. (Even his wild Toccata is in clear sonata-allegro form!) The Scherzo tempo was very zippy, enlivened by wide dynamics. The group’s sound became almost orchestral in the final Allegro molto vivace, with an amazingly fast coda played with clarity and verve. Quite a performance.
Our novelty was the String Quartet No. 3 by the Polish-Jewish composer Szymon Laks (1901-1983). Laks spent 1941-45 in German concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz, where he directed the camp orchestra. (Its main function was to perform for the entertainment of the guards.) Surviving the War, Laks apparently began work on this Quartet shortly after his camp was liberated and he finished it within months.
Music created under these circumstances might be expected to be heavy and tragic, but Laks used his freedom to go in the opposite direction. Adopting a French idiom (he was originally captured in France, and after the War spent the rest of his life there), he wrote a Ravellian work based on Polish folk themes. Its structure falls somewhere between string quartet form and folk tune medley. Laks didn’t use his material with the freedom of a Bartók or a Janácek, sticking more closely to the original tunes. It was amusing how the third movement began with the entire quartet playing pizzicato, as in Debussy’s Quartet.
Laks’s Quartet, hardly a forgotten masterpiece, is nevertheless entertaining enough to hold interest. Knowing its circumstances of composition heightens its triumph of the spirit. The Dover Quartet played very vigorously, perhaps a little over-dramatized in parts of the second movement but overall enough to convey it very well.
Another Eastern European nationalist’s work, Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, in D, Op. 11, concluded the program. (I am not convinced that the other two of Tchaikovsky’s quartets deserve their almost total obscurity.) Here the Dover Quartet showed its versatility by sounding quite different in the four movements. The opening Moderato unfolded with a very sweet, lovely sound; a tiny bit shrill at its loudest, it swirled rather than achieving crisp articulation. The affect became totally velvet in the famous Andante cantabile, then much rougher in the dancy Scherzo. The finale effectively combined vigor and smoothness, although the almost frenetic take one the final page felt rather overdone. No matter. It was still a highly worthwhile concert.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.