St. Lawrence String Quartet
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