St. Lawrence String Quartet
Geoff Nuttall, Owen Danby (violins), Lesley Robertson (viola), Christopher Costanza (cello)
Edmonton Recital Society
Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 25, Op. 20 No. 2
John Adams: Selections from Alleged Dances
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 4, Op. 44 No. 2
The St. Lawrence String Quartet is perhaps the very model of a modern string quartet. Formed in Toronto in 1989, it quickly established itself as one of Canada’s leading young chamber groups, winning competitions along the way – notably the fourth Banff International String Quartet Competition in 1992 – and picking up a Juno award in 2000 for their CD of Schumann string quartets (EMI Classics 5 56797 2). Since then it has solidified a reputation in North America and beyond.
The personnel have changed over those years: 1st violin Geoff Nuttall and Edmonton-born violist Lesley Robertson are co-founders, cellist Christopher Costanza joined in 2003, while 2nd violin Owen Dalby is the most recent member, joining in 2015. The quartet came into prominence at a time when (in part thanks to international competitions such as the Banff) both the quality and quantity of young string quartets were blossoming, and residencies at universities were providing a basis for income security. Indeed, the St. Lawrence String Quartet now directs Stanford University’s chamber music program, and runs an Emerging String Quartet program for the next generation of players.
The technical standards of such younger modern quartets are really considerable – virtuoso playing is now a prerequisite for wider success – and the St. Lawrence exemplifies this. The ensemble is rock solid, as is the blending of sound across instruments. The sense of shared rhythm and timing is as accurate as a Swiss watch. They can collectively switch from a ff to a pp on a dime. They burst with energy, a bristling cat of a string quartet rather than a purring feline. It’s exhilarating stuff.
At the same time, with the calm exception of Lesley Robertson, they are a very histrionic quartet. Bodies gyrate, legs fly, Costanza’s left foot sometimes pounds the floor. Nuttall’s eyes range over the audience, or, as just before the end of the first repeat at measure 47 of the first movement of the Haydn, glower intently at them, as if to say it’s your fault that the other three instruments are about to break out into ff. I know I wasn’t the only one rather put off by this visual cornucopia – but one can, of course, always shut one’s eyes.
The exaggerated body movement is essentially a modern phenomenon, from a string quartet or a conductor, and it is a crowd-pleaser in the Winspear or in the Muttart. Equally modern is the St. Lawrence’s decision to release their survey of all six of Haydn’s Op. 20 ‘Sun Quartets’ later in the year in a free, high-definition on-line video, rather than on CD or DVD.
Indeed, the concert started with a kind of exuberant gusto, an incisive attack, and a very sharp sunlight in that opening movement of the second of Haydn’s ‘Sun Quartets’, String Quartet No. 25 (Op.20 No. 2 in C major). The pace and the energy was all very exciting, but this movement is marked ‘moderato’. Other quartets take this opening quite fast, but this performance was perhaps the fastest I have ever heard. There is something rather noble and sentimental about this movement (so palpable in the Kodaly Quartet’s considerably slower performance, Naxos 8.550701), and here there was a kind of reinvention going on – fair enough, and interesting in its own right, but I was reminded of Glen Gould’s rather idiosyncratic approach to Bach.
There is, indeed, little sentimental about the St. Lawrence’s Quartet’s playing. They play more from the head than the heart, with technical logic rather than emotional lyricism. There is a paradox in this, given the exaggerated body movements: it is as if the depth of emotions had been transferred to the body rather than the bow. The music progresses by contrasts of tempi and dynamics, which they handle with mastery. One marked characteristic of Saturday’s concert, regardless of what was being played, was that the colours – the handling of tone – was singularly (and uniformly across the instruments) monochromatic. This was exemplified in the encore performance of the Affetuoso e sostenuto slow movement of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 28 (Op.20, No.1) – sostenuto, yes, affetuoso (tender and with affection), no. Such colours as the warm mellow autumnal tones that the Fine Arts Quartet conjured up in their Edmonton concert last year are not in the St. Lawrence’s canon, and perhaps intentionally so – the sound of the past.
This, and the tendency for fast tempi, had the result that more contemplative music didn’t have quite the breadth to unfold: they got through the slow movement of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No 4, Op.44 No.2, for example, in some 5’ 40”. Compare this with the caressing rocking of the Gewandhaus Quartet’s recorded version (6’ 14”, NCA 60205-358) or the lovely measured richness of the Talich (6’ 49”, La Dolce Vita LDV115.70).
All this is perhaps a matter of taste. The grit, the precision, the drive work really well in, for example, the St. Lawrence’s impressive recording of the Shostakovich quartets 3, 7 and 8 (EMI Classics 3 59956 2). But the kind of reimagining of the essentially classical Haydn and Mendelssohn in this concert is not for me. I am glad to have heard it, but I wouldn’t want to revisit it.
Another essential element of modern string quartets (especially if they are to win competitions) is to play, and commission, contemporary works. The St. Lawrence has an impressive record in this, giving, for example, the first performance of R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No.3. It has been particularly associated with John Adams, one of the finest contemporary American composers, and long resident in the Bay area where the St. Lawrence now resides.
The quartet regularly features Adams’ two string quartets in its programming – both were written for the St. Lawrence – and its recording of Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra, which it premiered in 2011 and which it has toured in the US and Europe, is due for release this year.
Here the St. Lawrence gave three pieces from Adams’ collection of 12 pieces titled Alleged Dances, written for the Kronos quartet in 1994. They are ‘alleged dances’ because steps for the dances had not yet been invented – though they have since been choreographed – and they carry wonderfully enigmatic titles (the three here were ‘Toot Nipple’, the pavane ‘She’s So Fine’, and ‘Alligator Escalator’).
Adams’ characteristic elements of minimalism were not so quite evident in these three selections as they are in some of the other dances in the set. What was really fascinating about them was the sense of Adam’s connection to the American tradition, so often rooted in music for the square dance, for the camp fire, for evangelical church meetings. Indeed, the composer has described ‘Dogjam’ (not played here) as a ‘hoe-down’. The opening of ‘She’s So Fine’ had hints of Copland – though surely a couple of the figures in this piece were inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s song of the same name. ‘Alligator Escalator’ had shades of Charles Ives, while ‘Toot Nipple’ might be described as a square dance fiddle meeting minimalism.
So, yet again, a fascinating offering from the Edmonton Recital Society. Its next concert, the Tanya Prochazka Tribute Recital, remembering the Edmonton cellist who died in 2015, is on Sunday Feb. 26. It features a new work for cello and piano by Edmonton’s John McPherson (and friend of Prochazka), which he describes as a portrait of Tanya Prochazka herself.