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St. Lawrence String Quar­tet

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In its 27-year his­tory, the St. Lawrence String Quar­tet has staked its place as not just the lead­ing four­some of Cana­dian ori­gins (though its mem­bers re­side prin­ci­pally in Cal­i­for­nia) but in­deed as one of the most no­table in the world. One can­not es­cape feel­ing that ev­ery note, rest, bow stroke, breath, and phrase has been poked, prod­ded, wor­ried about, ar­gued over, and not yet put to rest — with­out sac­ri­fic­ing the sense of spon­tane­ity in per­for­mance. The group im­poses its strong per­son­al­ity on the mu­sic. The dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter comes most ob­vi­ously from first vi­o­lin­ist Ge­off Nut­tall, who ad­heres to a take-no-pris­on­ers phi­los­o­phy of mu­sic-mak­ing. But the spirit also re­sides in the mu­si­cal ten­sion be­tween him and the mar­velous cel­list Christo­pher Con­stanza, and in the bal­ance they achieve with the finely honed in­ner voices of vi­o­list Les­ley Robert­son (along with Nut­tall a char­ter mem­ber) and se­cond vi­o­lin­ist Owen Dalby (who joined the en­sem­ble this past June).

Do they over­in­ter­pret the mu­sic? I don’t think so, al­though they reg­u­larly make their way to the very brink of clas­si­cal deco­rum. As­pir­ing for mere re­spectabil­ity is clearly not th­ese play­ers’ ob­jec­tive. They want to put lis­ten­ers on the edge of their seats, and this they did of­ten in their con­cert this past Sun­day, spon­sored by Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica. Haydn is one of their spe­cial­ties. They view him not as an ami­able jokester but rather as a dar­ing avant- gardist. His F-mi­nor Quar­tet (Op. 20, No. 5) proved cus­tom- made for t heir ap­proach, invit­ing hy­per- drama in many of its Sturm und Drang con­tours. In the Menuet, the play­ers bent phrases to their will, yet one was con­vinced of their mu­si­cal pur­pose in do­ing so. The elab­o­rate em­broi­deries of the slow move­ment be­came af­fect­ing rather than just dec­o­ra­tive. Here the idea of phras­ing en­com­passed many el­e­ments of mu­sic-mak­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously — melodic con­tour, rhythm, ar­tic­u­la­tion, tone — and a com­plete change of en­sem­ble tim­bre for the ho­mo­phonic coda proved both star­tling and sat­is­fy­ing. In the fi­nale, the fa­mous “Fugue on Two Sub­jects,” the quar­tet main­tained hushed se­crecy un­til its mo­ment to ex­plode into forte.

John Adams wrote his Se­cond String Quar­tet for this group, which premiered it just over a year ago. Much though I ad­mire many of Adams’ works, I have been an ag­nos­tic about his cham­ber mu­sic and have failed to be se­duced by his First Quar­tet, which has now been recorded twice. The Se­cond Quar­tet, how­ever, proved thrilling. It comes across as the manic spawn of Beethoven, Co­p­land, and Bernard Her­rmann. (Is that even pos­si­ble?) From a the­matic point of view, much of it is de­rived from phrases in late works of Beethoven — mostly mo­tifs from his Pi­ano Sonata No. 31 (Op. 110), but, in its con­clud­ing sec­tion, also ven­tur­ing into the Di­a­belli Vari­a­tions. Adams’ orig­i­nal treat­ment of th­ese ideas seems in­spired less by th­ese late mas­ter­pieces per se than by Beethoven’s prepara­tory work for them. It is as if he picked up one of Beethoven’s sketch­books and added ex­tra pages, wrestling with the mo­tifs (rather as Beethoven did) in un­cen­sored ex­plo­ration, some­times stut­ter­ing, of­ten elated, al­ways en­er­getic, be­fore con­clud­ing in a kindly con­so­nance.

The four­some also in­vested great pas­sion in its ren­di­tion of Schu­mann’s Quar­tet No. 3. Hard-driv­ing up-bows lent power to phrase-ends in the first move­ment, and in the third, Dalby briefly achieved a tim­bre re­sem­bling a zither, a weird and won­der­ful ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the swelling lyri­cism that sur­rounded him. In an en­core, the long lines and dis­tilled pu­rity of the slow move­ment from Haydn’s Quar­tet in E-f lat ma­jor (Op. 20, No. 1) in­vited lis­ten­ers to de­com­press af­ter a con­cert of ex­cep­tional dy­namism. — James M. Keller

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