Listen Up: A quartet to reckon with
James M. Keller
About 100 pieces figured in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival this year, and of the half of those I heard, the performance of one in particular will stay long in my memory. It arrived at the center of the noon recital on Aug. 20, when the Dover Quartet, which I had not heard previously, took to the stage to perform Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3. The composition is a good one, but the impression was made more by the performance than by the piece itself. I listened to the opening moments with mounting disbelief. The sonority of the very first chords gleamed gently with the shimmer of silk, a perfect enfoldment for dense, added-note harmonies that fell somewhere in the space where Debussy meets early Schoenberg (think Verklärte Nacht), perhaps with Janácek adding his two cents from the peanut gallery.
It was my ideal of the way string quartets should aspire to sound, but few achieve it. The Dover’s default timbre is — for lack of a better word — beautiful. Each of the four instruments insisted on sounding incontestably attractive, a balm for the ears near the end of a summer in which entirely too many violinists seemed bent on turning their E strings into assault weapons. This is not to imply that the Dover’s playing suffered from a lack of tonal variety. In fact, the group covered a broad sonic range, but it seemed convinced that a quartet might play expressively, even at loud volume or with incisive attack, without being harsh. Just as important, the foursome actually sounded like the unique entity that a quartet ought to be, like a single musical organism rather than the casual sum of its parts. When individual lines emerged from and then receded back into the overall texture, one never sensed a passing moment of glory for the viola or cello or whomever. Instead, it seemed as if whatever happened was an embodiment of the quartet per se, which in its totality was simply stretching its muscles this way or that, never in a way that made it seem like anything but a corporate body.
The piece itself is an entry in the literature of “Entartete Musik,” compositions by mostly German, Austrian, and Czech composers who fell afoul of the Nazis, the result being that their music was banned and the composers mostly slaughtered. This repertoire began being resuscitated in the 1990s, and since that time Ullmann’s Third Quartet has become relatively well known; there are currently four recordings of it available on CD, and I wouldn’t be surprised if another, featuring the Dover Quartet, is on the way sooner rather than later.
Ullmann was born in 1898 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now the Czech Republic. After studying with Schoenberg in Vienna, he gained respect in Prague as a critic and composer but was increasingly stifled as national socialism enveloped Germany during the 1930s. (His father had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, which to the Nazis meant Ullmann was Jewish and … you know the rest.) Efforts to emigrate following the Nazi invasion of Czech lands came to naught, and by the end of 1939 he and his wife had grown so desperate that they consigned two of their three children to the Kindertransport, which succeeded in spiriting them to England. In September 1942, Ullmann was deported to the Terezín concentration camp north of Prague, the Nazis’ “model arts institution” that was a public-relations sham and a holding station for prisoners who would eventually proceed to Auschwitz. Notwithstanding his state of deprivation in the camp, he kept himself busy composing, organizing concerts, and writing music criticism. No fewer than 16 works date from his time at Terezín, including this tightly knit quartet. In this performance it came across as an escape into beauty rather than a reflection of Ullmann’s circumstances. On Oct. 16, 1944, Ullmann was transferred to Auschwitz. He died in a gas chamber two days later.
The fourth movement of Ullmann’s Third Quartet opens with grand gestures reminiscent of late Beethoven, thus neatly prefiguring the performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major (Op. 135) that would occupy the Dovers that evening. Again they delivered an inspired performance, although this time I knew to expect it. They endowed the opening phrase with richly wrought character, injecting at the first full cadence the slightest rhythmic delay accompanied by a perfectly coordinated drop-off of volume.
The decreased volume Beethoven writes in the score. The tiny ritardando is “interpretation,” and other foursomes have been known to suggest something along the same lines. The Dover, however, rendered this idea with exceptional finesse, such that it seemed in no way an imposition on the score but rather an inevitable realization of latent demands lurking within the phrase. This is a tiny thing — so small as to seem hardly worthy of comment, you might say. But the practice of chamber music involves obsessive pursuit of almost unquantifiable details of this sort, and when you line them up one after another, they appear not so inconsequential after all. It would be hard to think of any musical idea smaller than what the first violin articulates in measure two: a staccato eighth note, played pianissimo, approached via two ascending grace notes — hardly even a chirp. Still, that little motif keeps resurfacing, and when all four members of the Dover played it in unison while heading down the movement’s homestretch, they played with jaw-dropping unanimity, even while rendering the rising grace notes at least as quickly as — and possibly quicker than — I have ever heard them. The group did allow some gruff grumbling, furious shouting, and comical braying in the second movement, but even these were accomplished without losing complete sight of the underlying elegance of timbre. In the third movement I was struck by how expressively the four players used vibrato; at places they infused each part with a different shading, but everything added up to a distinct and harmonious effect.
For me, this was string quartet Nirvana. And here’s the kicker: in a domain that prizes longevity and assumes that depth comes only with time, the Dover Quartet is practically a toddler. It came together when its members were all nineteen years old, and that was a mere six years ago. There’s no way to know where these players are headed, although they will surely change as time goes by. I hope they will never alter the inherent sonic beauty of their approach, which already assures them a spot among the finest of currently active quartets. We are delighted to see that the foursome will be returning for next summer’s festival.
A confederacy of aces
The final week of the festival also included appearances by pianist Yefim Bronfman, this year’s artist in residence. He too treated listeners to an imposing level of musicianship. Bronfman’s playing was marked by brawn coexisting with clarity, by a lucid surface underpinned with a foundation of absolute solidity. The highlight of his solo recital, at noon on Aug. 19, was a compelling rendition of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, a work that is splendidly suited to his particular artistry. It was on the whole a rather strict interpretation, less inclined toward the work’s potential lyricism than to its machine-age properties. The latter could prove quite thrilling, though, and the toccata-like finale showed the pianist at his very best, his ironclad technique enabling him to toss off its terrors with apparent ease. His playing was not just about fleet fingers. It was also built on voicing and tone.
One of the most remarkable passages came in the middle of the sonata’s second movement, a sequence in which, after some creepy-crawly business, the left hand descends to alight on an accented low C, then a few measures later on a similarly accented low D, and then again on a similarly stressed low B-flat. Interpreters often knit these three notes into the fabric of the piece at that point. Bronfman, however, plumbed them for all their possible glory and set them apart from what surrounded them. He invested each of those three notes with a great, bronze tone that gave the illusion of swelling in volume, as if the piano were concealing built-in gongs. It was a remarkable effect.
Beethoven’s Archduke Trio is a piece of a very different sort, but on Aug. 21, Bronfman showed that the same basic characteristics could serve in Beethoven as well as in Prokofiev. His confederates in this performance were well matched, achieving an interpretation of rock-solid authority. Eric Kim’s frank and forthright extroversion seemed a cellist’s equivalent of what Bronfman was doing on the piano, while violinist Martin Beaver, late of the recently disbanded Tokyo String Quartet, proved an excellent team player, adding a touch of sweetness to the mix. (He was not one of the summer’s E-string warriors.) At the end of the scherzo movement is a juncture where the cello hands off a melody to the violin in midphrase; the way these two players matched their tones at that moment was borderline miraculous, and the two instruments seemed like only one. One thinks of the Archduke Trio as an Apollonian piece, and this reading supported that ideal with a sense of harmonious order and restrained grandeur. This still allowed for impressive climaxes, and Bronfman invariably approached these pinnacle moments by intensifying both dynamics and timbre. When he built a crescendo, his sounds grew in volume (by definition), but they also grew in fullness of tone. Loudness of tone and fullness of tone are not quite the same thing, and one admired how the pianist made both aspects grow in careful balance with each other.