Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Volume 2 (CD review)

The Middle Quartets: Nos. 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Dover Quartet. Cedille CDA 90000 206 (3-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

As you know, the German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote sixteen numbered string quartets and one, single-movement, unnumbered quartet in the final thirty years or so of his life. Since the Dover Quartet are determined to issue all seventeen of them on disc, this is the second volume, the Middle Quartets as they’re known, Nos. 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Or, if you’re fussy about numbering, Op. 59, Nos. 1-3; Op. 74, “Harp”; and Op. 95, “Serioso.”

For those of you still unsure about who The Dover Quartet are, Wikipedia explains that they are “an American string quartet...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,” which in turn is a setting for the poem by the English poet Matthew Arnold. The Dover ensemble “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 Beethoven album under review is by my count the fifth one they have released on which they are the primary performers.

The Dovers play on instruments spanning three centuries. Mr. Link plays a violin by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, Paris, 1845. Mr. Lee plays a violin by Riccardo Antoniazzi, Milan, 1904. Ms. de Stadt plays a viola by an unknown maker from Brescian School, early 18th century. And Mr. Shaw plays a cello by Frank Ravatin, Vannes, 2010. Whatever the make and model of the instruments they play, the Dover Quartet make beautiful music together.

The first item on the agenda is the String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1, written and published in 1808 on a commission from Prince Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna at the time. Many music scholars consider it the first of Beethoven’s truly mature quartets, and even its length attests to this, being quite a bit longer than his previous efforts. In fact, it’s so long (almost forty minutes) it takes up the entire first disc of this three-disc set. The thing is, though, while it’s a long quartet, it seems shorter. Maybe it’s how one gets so completely swept up in the music making. Certainly, the Dovers appear to be enjoying themselves, which in music is paramount. Their instruments sing, and there was a great temptation for this listener to sing along with them if the music had any words. Well, OK, the third-movement Adagio is a bit too solemn for singing, but the Allegro finale with its “Theme russe” is so fully melodic, the Dovers practically croon it. Wonderful musicianship.

The String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 and the String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 occupy disc two. Beethoven wrote and published them in 1808, also as part of the commission from Prince Razumovsky. (The three Razumovsky quartets are so strongly intertwined that people often think of them as a trio or as simply the “Russian Quartets”). Supposedly, Beethoven was inspired to write the second movement (Molto Adagio) of No. 8 as he pondered the stars and imagined the music of the spheres. The Dover Quartet play it gently, sensitively, graciously and do, indeed, conjure up the magic of the night sky. They conclude it with a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s Presto. Then comes No. 9, two of whose most prominent features are the similarity in its introduction to Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet and in its second movement’s Hungarian (and possibly Russian) influences. For me, this has always been the most unusual (and my favorite) of the trio, largely due to its surprises and inventions. The Dover players have fun with it, even in the more serious parts. By the time they reach the tumultuous finale, they’re in full swing and attack it with a heady gusto.

Disc three begins with the String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74, “Harp,” written in 1809. Interestingly, Beethoven’s publisher gave it the nickname “Harp” not because it includes a harp but because of the quartet’s pizzicato sections in the first movement, where the player’s alternate notes in an arpeggio remind us of the plucking of a harp. It’s a delightful piece of music, and the Dover Quartet do it complete justice in a performance of playful elegance and flair.

The final selection in the set is the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, “Serioso,” from 1810. It gets its nickname from the third movement, Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. Because it was so different from his other quartets (brief length, sudden outbursts, tonal liberties, unusual silences, and rhythmic oddities, among other things), Beethoven never wanted it played in public. He considered it more of an experiment than a finished product and didn’t want it on display. Thankfully, he was wrong, and we have it today for everyone to enjoy.

Producer Alan Bise and engineer Bruce Egre recorded the quartets at Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana in December 2019 and July and August 2020. Although there is not a lot of hall resonance involved, it all sounds wonderfully clean and natural, with a warm, ambient glow. The sound is fairly close up but extremely smooth (perhaps a touch too smooth for some audiophiles) and eminently listenable.

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 both its equipment and recordings 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, 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 Writer

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. 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 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. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

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