Dover Quartet returns to the Banff Centre for glorious concert with André Laplante
The Dover Quartet returned triumphantly to the Banff Centre, this time to Rolston Hall on Friday night, right next door to where their famous haul of all the prizes dramatically took place at the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) last September.
It was a concert not to be missed, if only for the chance to hear once more the Dover Quartet’s unmistakeable glowing sound, near-flawless technique, immaculate phrasing and an obvious sympatico for every note and chord they play.
Since their BISQC sweep, impressive tours have followed and blazing success closely thereafter, ensuring the group’s enduring popularity beyond a mere meteoric rise. Much has been written about the Dover Quartet and their trademark sound since that time, all of it generous and richly deserved from many quarters. But, among the mountains at the Banff Centre, we feel perhaps a closer kinship than most with the ensemble, for it seems to us that it all began here, a year or so ago, when we were the happy few who were privileged enough to see their rising star first begin to shine.
And with celebrated pianist André Laplante along to offer the Schumann Piano Quintet, it was hardly surprising that a packed sold-right-out Rolston Hall crowd turned out eagerly to hear five exquisite musicians of considerable sensitivity, schooled in the subtle fine art of chamber ensemble communication.
The first work on the program was Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 4 in E minor, which quickly belies its sombre opening in the minor mode, eschewing its gloom to develop into one of the most sophisticated and uplifting chamber movements the composer ever wrote. The Allegro movement contained finely executed cavalcades of changing topic, shifting mood, and delicious sonority, with plenty to crow about in dozens of colour contrasts. The audience had plenty of golden moments to choose from, whether it was refined playing, impassioned ensemble work, weighted attacks, a gorgeous cello solo in the G major second theme group from Camden Shaw, or the secure harmonic sense of phrasing issued forth from the finest young quartet in recital anywhere today.
The power of the Dover Quartet to communicate a work with awesome sophistication borders on the spiritual.
What is most remarkable is this quartet’s ability to shift timbres and even appear, improbably, to shift their core blend, effectively becoming chameleons of sound and allowing them to effectively interpret any composer they wish and in any style of playing. What a joy it was to listen to how each member of the quartet paid copious attention to detail at every harmonic turn throughout the first movement. Or how they subtly took the C major section in the development when the movement’s emotional temperature plummeted. Or how about their virtuosity? In the brisk coda all four played unfailingly and unerringly well together and at a committed level of symbiotic tonal excellence.
The second movement Scherzo continued the case in point. Brisk, short choppy phrases predominate in this smart tip-of-the-hat theme to Beethoven’s late style, but the Dover Quartet shifted tonal gears and sound worlds, quickly and easily, leading to Milena Paparo-van de Stadt’s beautifully lyrical viola solo.
And they play with every kind of lyrical quality too. In the broadly-phrased Andante, they left no doubt that lush harmonic execution and a maturity of interpretation are already at their command. They bring an unmistakeable elasticity to all they do, and last night turned on the Romantic charm while tailoring their counterpoint in made-to-measure phrasing, abandoning any sense of the metronomic. A sweet-toned solo from first violinist Joel Link, that could not have been played more ad libitum in its feeling, capped off this beauty and ended what sounded like the most perfectly balanced Mendelssohn I think I have ever heard in recent years.
Playing the fourth movement Presto agitato is a difficult affair because the frequent challenge that besets quartets is to keep the piece from becoming sonorously imbalanced. Timbral control is hard to maintain, however, with a cellist such as Mr. Shaw, all things seem possible, and his perfect intonation, balanced tone, sense of harmony, phrasing and careful light-fingered articulation led the way in the finale. Here was some of the most difficult ensemble playing in Mendelssohn’s output, and it was brushed aside with an uncommon security for any group this young, or any group at all.
They didn’t leave out a single detail to interpret. It was a feast for the ears, second by second, moment by moment, chord by chord, phrase by phrase – a window into eternity.
Next on the playbill was a favourite of mine, Janáček’s “Kreutzer Sonata” quartet, with its haunting story adapted from Tolstoy’s novella about a man who kills his wife after discovering her illicit romance with a violinist. Tolstoy narrates his story from the male protagonist’s point of view, but Janáček ingeniously tells the story in his quartet from the woman’s perspective. The intimate, programmatic-styled music has become a famous and beloved work, and now, at last, a staple of the string quartet repertoire.
Janáček imagined a lonely and desperate woman, tortured by an inner psychological drama that demands release from its passionate, often overflowing outbursts of intense energy. Often, such brief explosions are characterized by a preference for modally-inflected harmonies over traditional chords and linear counterpoint, emphasizing the brash cognitive dissonance of a woman torn apart by her inner world, leading to her dissolution, in both mind and body.
The opening movement’s Adagio and Con moto sections readily elicited the Dover quartet’s trademark sonority in every phrase with considerable polish, and there was no lacking in considerable expression for each programmatic gesture and every suffused moment of passion. It was a great performance, however one that could have been marked by a little more brusqueness and overflow of melodrama, with perhaps a little less restraint.
The second movement dealt with extremes in contrast, presenting a range of motives and ideas including the famous perfect fourth motive, worked in multiple ways, all of them drawing in its audience effectively with each development in the musical narrative. Sul ponticello passages, but for a moment in time, were steely and appropriately punctuated the narrative flow. The movement brought out some of the finest moments of unbridled, outstanding energy from the Dover Quartet, including suddenly, a perfectly disquieting ending, with dialogue between first violin and cello, followed by an unsettlingly calm coda and a haunting final chord of inward quality.
In the third movement, with the first violin/cello continuing now in canon, the duet is recast as more of a disturbing love duet (now built on a theme from Beethoven’s ”Kreutzer Sonata”) with its jarringly interruptive, piercing sul ponticello, broken chordal passages from second violin and viola. These were often played quite short and sharp, as though trying to give more intensity to a passage already loaded with tension. Nevertheless, the pathos evinced by the protagonist’s memories of love and its fluidic representational beauty was captured remarkably well by the Dover Quartet’s truly lovely prose. The overall effect was one of a tender, and at times, even a disturbing quality that I was drawn to appreciate.
In the Finale, the opening Adagio prepared us for the horrid murder to come, and the dissolution of both the lovers’ illicit bond and ultimately, of her life. Yet the music is suffused once again with a considerable pathos, a premier representative virtue that simply never eludes Dover’s interpretive powers. In the subsequent thematic transformations of the work’s opening theme, the quartet shone brightly, taking on every harmony with enormous dexterity, navigating a vast array of textures with impressive mettle. Here they were at their expressive finest and lit up Rolston Hall’s acoustic to the very last dying chord. It was a fine tour of a love story gone wrong and a fitting end to the concert’s successful first half from a quartet I can’t wait to hear when they return again to Rolston Hall – and very soon.
The evening’s second half consisted of the enduringly popular Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat major. When I hear this most famous opening, one of the most widely recognized found in any chamber work in the literature, I always wonder which interpretation the ensemble will choose to open the piece. Will it be a considered and close reading of what is in the score, or a facile brisk romp, bursting out of the starting gate, as is often the case? Last night, it was the first choice, gratifyingly, complete with a focused attack on every chord, articulating perfectly every harmony together as a masterpiece of phrasing and tightly declaimed melodic cohesion, yet never stinting on overall verve and élan.
And whenever the joyous allegro theme made its frequent return, I was relieved that it was not given the usual carbonated (and often annoying) bounce I have sadly grown tired of hearing in most performances. The development section was clean, accurate, and not overstated, the way the score is meant to be read after all. Mr. Laplante gave a succinct, beautifully-felt treatment of the work, never overbearing, nuanced in his collaboration, and acted as instigator of the appropriate tenor each musical idea was meant to take.
Even when the ensemble brought the movement to a close with considerable power, it was with tight control and appropriately measured restraint. The result was a movement spiced with unremitting sonic energy that never threatened to overpower the work or its performers. I enjoyed it very much.
In the famous slow movement marked In modo d’una marcia, the quintet gave the theme a succinct and terse treatment. The sombre opening was buttressed by the breezy largamente phrasing of the second section, taking wing with appropriately tender, lyrical care. Close harmonies were played with meaty breadth in viola and cello, carrying the narrative interest scrupulously well.
Linking to the turbulent C section, the ensemble attacked the music with dramatic force, showcasing Ms. Paparo-van der Stadt’s low viola solo intonation of the theme. But soon after, Mr. Link’s violin brought a new affetuoso to the emotional temperature accompanied by close harmonies and colourful sonorities played with a kind of délicatesse that comes only with practised care.
After such an elegiac march-like hymn, the Scherzo is always tough to bring off well, with its upward-swooping scales relying on only the best rhythmic inflection from all personnel. How often this is given either perfunctory treatment or laboured forcefulness. Not tonight. Here, as in the trios that followed, the entire ensemble understood the movement well in all its eloquence and it was a relief to hear. Kudos especially to Mr. Laplante who played the Scherzo rhythmically perfectly, and with judicious dynamic sensitivity from note to note in his E flat scales from low B flat to peak A flat. It was the best playing of the Scherzo I have heard it in a very long time.
And the second trio, with its offset rhythms, was understood as well as I have heard it interpreted anywhere. Power and discipline made this movement work. It was an object lesson in not yielding to overstatement and simply getting out of the way of the music, allowing its natural expressive dimensions to come forth in simple eloquent interpretation. Outstanding.
The finale, marked Allegro ma non troppo, is something of a difficult piece for audiences to get their collective mind around, owing to its somewhat contrasting character to the previous, ebullient Scherzo. Reading the tempo at face value helped to elucidate the triad theme with convincing clarity, and make interpretive sense of the overarching form. Sections of controlled power, once again, contrasted well with more lyrical passages, each member of the ensemble giving the music its due.
The double fugato that breaks out at the end, making use of the opening movement’s theme, was given special eloquence and beauty with grand flourish. Each voice could be heard audibly well, lending narrative weight to the work’s cyclical nature. The beautiful drone bass, unison playing, and resonant accuracy in the coda gave the final movement a well-defined coherent narrative that the piece often lacks in other performances.
Too often, the Schumann quintet is given super-abundantly energetic, brash performances that ignore the context bound by disciplined Romantic playing. Such performances try too hard to overwhelm when sheer energy substitutes too readily for considered control over emotive power. But, through practised, disciplined, focused playing, the art of fine communication in chamber music such as what we heard from the Dover Quartet and Mr. Laplante Friday night can ascend to a level that is even more powerful than facile interpretations that rely on unguided energy alone. The audience knew it all too well, standing immediately to give the quintet a well-deserved ovation right after the last note sounded.
Here was music making at its finest, not only in its inarguable artistry but also with an abundance of considered musicianship. It was the finest recital of the summer here at the Banff Centre’s Rolston Hall, and one no one here will soon forget.