About two weeks ago Cedille Records released the debut album of the Dover Quartet. The members of this ensemble, which was formed by students at the Curtis Institute of Music in 2008, are violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. The title of the album is Tribute; and the tribute is to the members of the Guarneri Quartet, who had served as both teachers and coaches when the Dover Quartet was first forming and building an initial repertoire.
The tribute begins with the content of the album, which consists entirely of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This is the 50th anniversary year of the recording debut of the Guarneri Quartet on RCA Red Seal; and that debut also consisted of an all-Mozart album. In addition, the “Guarneri connection” is further enhanced with the appearance of Guarneri violist Michael Tree on the final selection, the K. 406 quintet in C minor. The preceding two selections are Mozart’s final two string quartets, K. 589 in B-flat major and K. 590 in F major. These are two of the three quartets that an impoverished Mozart wrote for King Frederick William II of Prussia in the hope of receiving some form of stipend or appointment. Sadly, the King gave little through to the gift after it was presented to him.
As tributes go, this album is definitely a good one. The Dover players have clearly learned much from their teachers, and it is difficult to fault the elegantly polished sonorities they bring to their three Mozart selections. They also display a keen sensitivity to any marks on the score pages beyond the notes themselves, concerned with such matters as dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. The group is now faculty quartet in residence at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University; and, both individually and collectively, it is clear that they are poised to serve as the next generation of teachers and coaches.
Nevertheless, there is a historical aspect of this repertoire that never quite came through on this recording. It involves the extent to which a string quartet was a social gathering of four performers, rather than a group created to play in front of an audience. When we think about the quartets composed by Mozart and his colleague Joseph Haydn, we need to remember that they themselves played together in a quartet (Mozart on viola and Haydn on second violin), along with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello. When we take in Haydn’s many quartets and, particularly, the six quartets the Mozart dedicated to Haydn, it is easy to imagine this group seated in some sort of living room, exchanging not only gestural cues but a fair number of knowing smiles in recognition of a particularly clever turn of phrase.
In other words these are quartets in which a thorough knowledge of how it was documented in the past must yield at least some priority to how it is being made in the immediate present. Recordings seldom capture just how exciting the social dynamics of “making” can be; and, for that matter, those dynamics can also get lost in a large performing space in a situation that only exists thanks to an audience of “paying customers.” Often the closest one can get to the social dimension of the Classical period will be in a conservatory setting where the presence of an audience is, at best, incidental.
Thus, the Dover debut recording is somewhat at a disadvantage for presenting familiar repertoire in a setting in which that social dimension cannot be effectively communicated. Because I know this group will be performing in San Francisco this coming Sunday, I also know that there is far more to their repertoire than Mozart quartets. Perhaps their debut recording should have been less concerned with tribute and more with compositions better suited to the constraints imposed by recording technology.