Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Volume 1 (CD review)

The Opus 18 quartets, Nos. 1-6. Dover Quartet. Cedille CDR 90000198 (2-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

Between the years 1797 and 1826 German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote sixteen numbered string quartets and one, single-movement, unnumbered quartet. The first six of these quartets comprise Op. 18, which we have here in the Dover Quartet’s first volume of complete Beethoven string quartets.

For those of you unsure of who The Dover Quartet are (or for those who cannot remember the information I provided in a previous review of their Mozart album, “Tribute”), they are, according to Wikipedia, “an American string quartet. It was formed at the Curtis Institute of Music in 2008 by graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Rice University Shepherd School of Music. Its name is taken from the piece “Dover Beach” by Samuel Barber. The quartet consists of violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. In 2020, the quartet was appointed to the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music as ensemble-in-residence. Additionally, they hold residencies with the Kennedy Center, Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, Artosphere, the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival, and Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in New York.” The current Beethoven album is the fourth one they have released on which they are the primary performers.

So, here they give us Beethoven’s first six string quartets, written between 1798-1800, starting with No. 1, which in reality is the second quartet he wrote, but you know how those early numbering systems went with publication dates and all. Anyway, the composer admitted that he liked this second quartet better than the first ones he wrote (officially numbered as Nos. 2 and 3) because he admitted “only now have I learnt to write quartets.” OK, so No. 1 is the second one he wrote, and apparently he felt he had finally gotten it right.

Whatever, the Dover Quartet play No. 1 with elegance and √©lan. They do not attempt tempos quite so fast as most historically informed groups might take, yet the music is always lively and alert. The outer movements are joyous, and the slow movement is serene in a melancholy way. They mesh well. As I’ve said before, the Dover Quartet play with a passionate clarity, and while every instrument is distinctively individual, they blend perfectly as a whole.

Beethoven was right. No. 1, the second quartet he wrote, really is better than the first one he wrote. The fact is, the first quartet he wrote seems to rest firmly on eighteenth-century norms. To my ears No. 1 actually appears more original than either Nos. 2 or 3, even if the composer did borrow parts of No. 1 from an earlier work of his. Anyway, Nos. 2 and 3 are light and frothy in the classical manner, quite charming, actually, just not entirely substantive. Or maybe I should say the Dover Quartet provide the substance.

With Nos. 4-6 (also published differently than their chronological composition dates) Beethoven really came more into his own, with No. 6 an especially strong entry with even more lyrical activity and more gravitas than the previous ones, beginning with a delightful Mozartian lilt. The last time I reviewed these Beethoven quartets was about a year or so earlier, they were done by the Eybler Quartet on the CORO label, and they did them a little differently. The Eybler Quartet are a period-instrument group and adopt a slightly faster and more flexible tempo according to historical practice. The Dover Quartet on modern instruments are marginally smoother and more mellifluous than the Eyblers and a tad more romantic in style. I welcome both perspectives and found them both a delight.

Producer Alan Bise and engineer Bruce Egre recorded the quartets at Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College Music Center, Goshen, Indiana in 2018 and 2019. As with most Cedille recordings, this one is completely natural and lifelike, meaning it is smooth, detailed, and realistically presented. The acoustic of the hall provides a soft, ambient glow to the music that complements it nicely. Never is the sonic picture hard, bright, or edgy. Nor is it blurred, distant, spongy, or dull. It’s all quite pleasantly listenable. If I have any minor concern at all, it would be about imaging. The group seems rather widely spread out across the speakers, and there isn’t a lot of air, distance, or depth among them. It’s a common practice in miking small string ensembles, giving the impression of a single, larger group on a one-dimensional plane. Nothing of consequence, though, really.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa