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Dover Quartet: As Good As It Gets


After a drenching rainstorm all Sunday morning, the sun returned just in time for the high-spirited, sold-out audience to enjoy the Dover String Quartet. Buoyant anticipation was palpable as we awaited the appearance of their terrific new violist, Julianne Lee, a longtime, much-admired member of the Boston Symphony.

Formed at Curtis in 2008, the Dover Quartet has, since then, walked off with a boatload of prestigious awards as well as recognition by the BBC Music Magazine of its being one of the greatest string quartets of the last 100 years. Its longtime members include violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, and cellist Camden Shaw, who earned the dubious privilege of acting as the afternoon’s humorous M.C. The afternoon was full of connections, starting with the quartet’s name, Dover, a nod to their fellow Curtis alumnus Samuel Barber, composer of “Dover Beach.”  In his enthusiastic introduction to the quartet, Barry Shiffman, Rockport Music’s Artistic Director, asked who in the audience had ever been to a Guarneri Quartet concert. Most of us raised our hands. He explained that Dover’s second violinist, Bryan Lee, had recently bought the violin of the Guarneri’s second violinist John Daley. (Their previous violist had bought my husband Burton Fine’s viola, a transaction thought up by the head of Curtis, Roberto Diaz, who hired The Dover as Quartet in Residence. 

Mozart’s stunning Quartet in E-Flat Major, K.428 (1783) uncannily matched the sunny afternoon with one large billowing cloud acting as an elegant canopy for the strings. One quickly realized that listening to a great quartet play Mozart on a beautiful day at Shalin Liu Performance Center is as good as life gets. What elegant, ebullient playing. I was deeply impressed, having known this quartet only through its recordings.

The quartet that followed, Leos Janacek’s Intimate Letters, Listy důvěrné (1928) composed in the last year of his life, simmers with the same unbridled passion that characterized the composer’s wild infatuation, beginning in 1917, when he was 63, and married, with the 26-year-old, also-married Kamila Stösslová. Suffused with longing, Janacek’s second quartet, composed in the last year of his life, originally entitled “Love Letters,” and was “Moaning, confiding, fearing… it’s a work as if carved out of living flesh. I think the I won’t write a more profound or a truer one.” He wrote to Kamila about the third movement of this quartet, musical portrait of her,” It will be very cheerful and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist.”

The quartet is a musical representation of some 700 letters sent between Janáček and Kamila Stösslová. After meeting Stösslová in 1917, Janáček became uninhibitedly infatuated with her, so much so that he based three different opera characters on her, including the Vixen from The Cunning Little Vixen, as well as using her as an influence for other popular works such as Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass. Although Stösslová remained emotionally aloof to Janáček’s desires, she still corresponded with him over an intense period, and was also by his side when he died in 1928. Sadly, Janacek heard the Moravian Quartet play the whole quartet at his house, but the public premiere happened six weeks after his death.

(Rory Crater photo)

The Dover Quartet played impressively throughout this mostly lyrical quartet, punctuated by many moments of coarseness when the quartet must play right on the bridge, with wispy and severe sounds. The viola had several beautifully played solos including a folklike melody at the beginning of the second movement. In the third movement we heard the second violin’s beautiful solos on his new (once John Daly’s) violin. The audience was enthralled, and unsurprisingly and gave a standing O.

For those who want to want to know more, “Intimate Letters,” a fun read, was published by Faber and Faber in 1994. “A Janacek A Composer’s Life” by Mirka Zemanova (Northeastern U.Press, 2002) is an excellent biography.

After intermission The Dover Quartet gave a stirring performance of Shostakovich’s Ninth String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 117 (1964), whose five movements transpire without pause. One can immediately identify this quartet as Shostakovich’s from its sound world: agonized, cryptic, ghostly. The Ninth has a slightly morbid history. Shostakovich finished the first version in 1961, but, depressed, burned it in a stove “…in a healthy self-criticism. This is the second such case in my creative practice. I once did a similar trick of burning my manuscripts, in 1926.” Its final version apparently shared nothing with the burned version, except for sharing the key of E-flat Major. It is dedicated to the composer’s third wife, Irina, whom he married in 1962. The Beethoven Quartet gave the first performance in Moscow in November of 1964. 

The quartet seems especially connected to the previous two, what some have called the “personal” quartets. He dedicated No. 7 to his first wife Nina (who died in 1954), No. 8, confidentially, to himself (in what has been called a suicide note), and No. 9 to his third wife Irina (whom he married in 1962). These three sequential quartets also share a common design feature: within each quartet, the movements are played together without a break, attacca, in a seamless narrative of continuous sound. And yet, No. 9 is also considered to foreshadow his late, final quartets. Despite a continuous flow of nonstop movements, Shostakovich begins a sort of disintegration of quartet texture into something more sparse and disruptive: individual parts drop out, solo cadenzas protrude in strong relief, huge pizzicato chords nearly defy the genre and momentum is stalled with new, gaping silences. In this respect, No. 9 represents a transition while standing on its own as a singular quartet of great originality. Indeed, compared with the intensity of No. 8 and the eventual bleakness of the late quartets, No. 9 is often considered exuberant, positive and outward looking. (Earsense)

First violinist Joel Link played impressively and exquisitely, with a beautiful sound throughout all three quartets. Violist Julianne Lee, cellist Camden Shaw, and violinist Bryan Lee played wonderfully separately and together. The Dover Quartet has unquestionably earned all of its many awards.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


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