PITTSFIELD >> They were friends. They were two of the 20th century's great composers.
In 1960, Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich found themselves sitting in the same box at the British premiere of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Shostakovich noticed the English composer responding enthusiastically to the music, even bobbing up and down.
Thus did a friendship begin, also embracing Mstislav Rostropovich, the soloist in the concerto. Shostakovich went to Britten's Aldeburgh Festival, and Britten visited Shostakovich in Russia, even staying in Shostakovich's house. The two composers dedicated major works to each other.
The Dover String Quartet recalled this association Sunday afternoon at South Mountain, performing each composer's Quartet No. 2. It was an imaginative programming idea, carried out with the intelligence and imagination that have marked the young ensemble's quick rise to prominence.
Even before they knew each other personally, the two composers shared an affinity in their music, as these gripping performances showed. Both men drew on traditional forms and harmonies to forge paths into the future. Both, composing during World War II, had deep sympathy for Jews. Even their sound worlds bear similarities.
Founded at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the Dover has amassed impressive prizes and residencies in its eight years of existence. The group's tone in South Mountain's flattering acoustics was big but rounded and blended, shading naturally into the music's flow. The sense of rhythm and timing was acute. Again and again, subtle or abrupt shifts of phrasing and dynamics added drama to music that is already rich in drama.
The Britten and Shostakovich quartets were written a year apart during wartime, in 1944 and 1945, respectively. Both men felt the effects of war on their personal lives. Shostakovich lived through the siege of Leningrad; Britten emigrated to the United States for a time.
Marked alike by savage dissonances and sardonic effects, the two works seethed with anger, but in these performances, sorrow and hope lay beneath. Both works ended with variations movements. Britten's chaconne (an homage to Purcell) tapered off into the upper strings' mourning above cello's mutterings. The theme then returned, transfigured.
Shostakovich's finale, based on Jewish melody — a preoccupation of his — ended, surprisingly, on a note of hope for survival amid tragedy. First violinist Joel Link played the adagio's lengthy solo line with grave eloquence.
Beethoven's Opus 18, No. 1, opened the program. It seemed not the early work it is, but an achievement of impressive range, especially in the slow movement's lament. The fast movements swung along with irresistible energy.
Violinist Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw round out the ensemble. The program was long and demanding on players and listeners alike, but carried along on wings of ambition and intensity.