In Graceful Debut, Dudok Foursome Thaws Winter Fest
By Kyle MacMillan
EVANSTON, Ill. — Although the Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam’s Jan. 12 program at Northwestern University included György Ligeti’s restlessly haunting String Quartet No. 1 from 1953-54, it was a work from more than 100 years earlier that almost seemed more modern: Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. That’s because the fast-rising young Dutch ensemble infused this music with a visceral intensity that made the composer’s anger and despair over the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, feel uncomfortably palpable and immediate.
The 1847 work – Mendelssohn’s last important composition before his death in November of that year – was the highlight of an auspicious and exciting North American debut for this group, which graduated from the Dutch String Quartet Academy in 2013. Although still trying to get its footing on the international scene, it has already scored a number of successes, including an Editor’s Choice award from Gramophone magazine for its first recording, Metamorphoses. The quartet also participated in the recent world premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s opera Only the Sound Remains at the Dutch National Opera. The Dudok’s academic pedigree includes studies with members of the renowned Alban Berg Quartett who continued teaching at the Cologne Conservatory for four years following the Austrian group’s retirement from performing in 2008.
The Dudok Kwartet opened Northwestern’s 2018 Winter Chamber Music Festival, which features emerging and established touring ensembles as well as members of the Bienen School of Music faculty and Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other guest artists. This edition of the annual festival continues through Jan. 28. It includes a Jan. 26 appearance by the Dover Quartet, which is in residence at Northwestern, and two solo recitals on Jan. 28 with violinist Jennifer Koh performing Shared Madness, a group of caprices she commissioned from 24 contemporary composers.
To get a sense of the Dudok Kwartet (named after famed Dutch architect Willem Marinus Dudok, who was a music lover), a good place to start was where the ensemble began Jan. 12 – Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387. In this bedrock work from the quartet repertoire (one of six pieces in the form inspired by Haydn and dedicated to Mozart’s older composing colleague), it was immediately possible to sense the sizable potential of this up-and-coming group whose members clearly share similar musical sensibilities and fit together impeccably.
Unlike some of today’s quartets that put a premium on muscularity and punch, this group demonstrates more of an Old World sensibility, accenting grace, clarity, and refinement. But that’s not to say it can’t summon ample power when necessary. The Dudok’s first-rate players possess all the chops they need, but that technical prowess is always subjugated to the group’s artistry and is never an end in itself. The group’s fine first violinist, Judith van Driel, exhibits a refreshingly clean, direct sound, and much the same can be said of the musicians overall, who play with notably restrained vibrato.
These qualities, especially the clarity and refinement, were richly in evidence in the ensemble’s buoyant, sprightly take on the Mozart quartet that was never forced, rushed, or over-complicated. The group thoroughly inhabited the music, bringing a vibrant, singing through line to every section and adroitly highlighting the all-important contrasts in dynamics, textures, and articulations. The foursome’s delicate shaping of the slow third movement captured its drama in an understated way, and still managed to be expressive and even have some fun in a dexterous handling of the finale’s tricky double fugue.
Next came Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, Métamorphoses nocturnes, which fellow Hungarian composer György Kurtág has called “Bartók’s seventh string quartet” because of its obvious debt to that master. It is one of Ligeti’s two mature works in the form, both of which the Dudok has recorded. Ligeti’s music has been increasingly performed since his death in 2006, and it is getting a widespread hearing in Chicago in 2017-18 due to the University of Chicago Presents’ season-long series devoted to it. As part of that line-up, the Arditti Quartet performed this same work in October.
Here is the Dudok Kwartet performing an excerpt of the Ligeti live at Bethaniënklooster, one of Amsterdam’s former monasteries:
Although the Ligeti quartet has moments of almost Debussy-like wonderment and several soulful solos, including one poignantly rendered by second violinist Marleen Wester, most of this charging, untamed piece has more to do with eerie nightmares than pleasant dreams. Emanating from the four instruments are slides, scratches, and squiggles, not to mention sometimes violent pizzicatos and percussive tapping. At one point, the piece descends into a kind of drunken waltz in which the notes almost seem slurred. The Dudok delivered the work’s unvarnished emotions while playing with characteristic clarity and unerring sense of structure.
Given the force of the performance and the work’s tumultuousness, it was not a total surprise that van Driel broke a string about two-thirds of the way through. She had to leave the stage to re-string her instrument, and once back she had to spend more time getting her violin back in tune. Then the musicians played more or less where they left off, and it didn’t take long for the ensemble and audience to get back into the work’s disorienting swirl.
Along with its first-rate musicianship, the Dudok members have shown themselves to be creative programmers. While most quartets schedule works that they think fit together in a logical and pleasing way and some make a point of including a modern or contemporary work, this group goes a bit further. Each season has a theme, which the ensemble explains in considerable detail on its website along with its reasoning behind each of its programs within that framework. This year’s programs are part of the quartet’s ongoing Fundamentals series, in which each season it is highlighting a masterpiece from the quartet canon. The 2017-18 “Fundamental” is Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, which the ensemble rightly says “fits the Dudok Quartet like a glove.”
Here they are performing the Mendelssohn at the Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition in Weimar, where they took second prize:
The ensemble was at its best in the Mendelssohn, burrowing into the work’s raw emotions. Pushing the tempos and vividly capturing the unsettled, agitated quality of the opening movement, it took the audience on quite a ride and then carried that intensity into the elusive second movement. The work reaches its climax in the slow, elegiac third movement, which the Dudok rendered with profound care, giving full voice to Mendelssohn’s obviously searing grief. Each player took advantage of the solo opportunities this beautiful section affords, with the cello getting the most time in the spotlight. Cellist David Faber, who tends towards a lighter sound, showed off a pleasing, deep-throated side of his playing here.
The Dudok Kwartet has no further concerts in North America scheduled at the moment. But when word gets out, expect that to change. And change quickly.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical-music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.Date posted: January 15, 2018