Quartet Mulled Summit Before Beginning Climb To Beethoven CD Cycle

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The Dover Quarte recorded the complete Beethoven string quartets for Çedille Records. (Photo by Roy Cox)

PERSPECTIVE — Composers like Bartók, Haydn, and Shostakovich all wrote essential, oft-performed sets of string quartets. But the ne plus ultra of such collections are unquestionably the 16 works for the combination by Beethoven that span his career and offer an unmatched range of moods, stylistic variations, and technical challenges.

Those pieces, written from 1798 to 1826, are the rule by which all great string foursomes are measured. Indeed, such groups typically spend years learning and living with these profound works before they record them or perform them as a set or cycle over multiple concerts.

And so it has been with the Dover Quartet, a 16-year-old ensemble that has set its sights on building a lasting legacy in the string-quartet world and becoming a worthy successor to such notable ensembles as the Guarneri Quartet (1964-2009) or the Emerson String Quartet, which disbanded in October 2023 after 47 years. (A story on this subject can be read here.)

The Dover, which has served as ensemble-in-residence at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music since 2020, unveiled in November an eight-disc boxed set of the complete Beethoven string quartets on the Çedille label. The works were originally released in three volumes in 2020-2022 and have garnered enthusiastic reviews.

“It means a lot in the field,” said first violinist Joel Link about the Beethoven set, “and it staples you down as a group that is serious. If you are a group that is trying to carry the torch from these incredible [quartet] lineages, the Guarneri, the Budapest, the Cleveland, any of these folks, that’s kind of an important rite of passage.”

The Dover — whose name comes from Dover Beach, Samuel Barber’s 1931 song setting of a poem by Matthew Arnold — was formed at Curtis in 2008, where all four of the group’s original members were students at the time. Link believes that shared educational background and the players’ subsequent maturation together have helped bring a unified approach to the quartet’s playing. “I think we came to it with a pretty strong unanimity of style quite early on,” he said.

The Dover first grabbed the chamber-music world’s attention by capturing the grand prize and three special prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition in Alberta, Canada. If that wasn’t enough, it took grand and first prizes at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition in South Bend, Ind., and prizes at London’s Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition and has received such other honors as the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2017.

Also helping to boost the group’s profile was its selection in 2015 as Northwestern University’s quartet-in-residence, a part-time position that brings the group to the Evanston, Ill., campus for at least one performance each school year, as well as ensemble coaching, master classes, and open rehearsals. The appointment was originally supposed to be for three years, but the ensemble has continued in that role to the present.

The Dover has gone on to distinguish itself internationally with its well-blended sound, comfortable sense of ensemble, and the uncommon intelligence and finesse of its playing. Cellist Camden Shaw believes there are two extremes in quartet playing — a tightly interwoven cohesiveness at one end of the spectrum and an “intensive individualism” at the other end that can be heard sometimes when star soloists get together to play chamber music. “A lot of quartets think so much about blending and matching everything that sometimes the individual expression can be sacrificed a little bit,” he said. “I think we strive for an interesting blend between those two extremes.”

Çedille Records, a non-profit label based in Chicago, approached the Dover Quartet about the Beethoven project as way to join the 2020 worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. While the ensemble members were thrilled with the invitation, they were also a little conflicted because it meant taking on such a monumental project earlier than they had expected. “They are such a seminal piece of the repertoire and need to be approached with such reverence that we weren’t sure we were ready,” said Shaw.

But after considerable discussion and consulting various mentors, they realized that they had already played most of the 16 works, and they felt the youthful vigor and energy they could bring to the project would work in their favor. (The players are now 34-35 years old.) “It was certainly a challenge that we felt we were rising to meet,” Shaw said. “It was an exciting and nerve-racking prospect.”

In approaching the Beethoven quartets, Shaw said, the four players didn’t worry about what other ensembles had done and instead tried to strike out on their own path. “I think, honestly, most of our interpretations come from this core set of beliefs, things that were instilled early on in us, about the mix of the sound and a general approach to character rather than style,” he said. The group pored over the mood and feel of each work section by section, considering such elements as the level of vibrato for each of the four voices. “In that sense,” the cellist said, “it’s very emotion-driven and character-driven, and that pervades the whole cycle.”

In sessions spanning 2018-2021, the Dover recorded the Beethoven set at Sauder Concert Hall, a 900-seat venue at Goshen (Ind.) College much loved by producer Alan Bise. He also took over as recording engineer after Bruce Egre died in the middle of the project. Bise provided hours of feedback and commentary that shaped this recording and transformed the ensemble in potentially lasting ways. “He’s as close to a fifth member of the quartet as any coaches in the past,” Shaw said, “and that’s really a wonderful thing.”

The Dover Quartet players all studied at the Curtis Institute of Music. (Cox)

Plenty of once-promising quartets implode before they reach even the 10- or 15-year mark because of artistic differences, divergent career ambitions, or the pressures of being together for scores of days each year on the road and in the rehearsal room. But the Dover has managed to get to the 16-year mark, Link said, in part by prioritizing repertoire that all the members really love and finding new joys in works that they return to after multiyear absences. 

Like many quartets, they also follow certain practices to try and maintain some distance between the members when they travel. They make a point, for example, of not booking adjoining hotel rooms. “So, if you’re hearing your colleague practicing at 9 p.m. when you are talking to your partner or family, it can feel like there is not enough mental distance from work,” Shaw said. At the same time, they don’t get together socially very often, but they do make a point of gathering for important events like birthdays.    

A big challenge as the quartet moves forward is incorporating its new violist, Julianne Lee, formerly principal second violin of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who joined the quartet in the fall of 2023. (She plays both viola and violin.) The Dover’s former violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, left in 2022, and an interim player, Hezekiah Leung, filled the role in 2022-23 while the group looked for a permanent replacement. (The group’s founding second violinist is Bryan Lee.)

While personnel changes happen to almost every chamber ensemble sooner or later, they are difficult because they alter the balance and sense of ensemble that the group has worked so hard to attain. Helping smooth Lee’s integration into the group has been her common Curtis background. Right from the start, she shared many of the other Dover players’ tendencies when it came to such elements as vibrato and articulation. At the same time, she brought what Shaw called a “healthy spectrum” of new ideas and approaches. “It was just like coming home even though we had never played with her before,” he said. “But it was just an obvious fit, and it felt really wonderful, and it has continued to feel wonderful.”

While Link echoed many of Shaw’s comments about Lee, noting her similar musical values and interpretative approach, he acknowledged that the transition was still inevitably anxiety-inducing. Although the personnel change represents just one quarter of the quartet, it affects the entirety of the ensemble in virtually every way. “It is different,” Link said, “and the sound completely changes, and the balance does completely change, but it also opens a whole new spectrum of other possibilities.”

With the Beethoven recording project checked off its to-do list and a new violist solidly ensconced in its line-up, this flourishing ensemble pushes toward its third decade as performers, mentors, new-age exemplars in a distinguished tradition.

The Dover Quartet’s upcoming concerts include: Jan. 12, Winter Chamber Music Festival, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; Jan. 13, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and Jan. 17, UGA Presents, University of Georgia, Athens.