Edmonton Classical Music

A comprehensive calendar of classical music concerts being presented in Edmonton, Alberta, and reviews of those concerts.

Month: June 2018

Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival: St. Lawrence String Quartet

St. Lawrence String Quartet

The St. Lawrence String Quartet
Photo: Marco Borggreve

‘String Quartets Rock!’

Excerpts from:
Haydn: String Quartets op.20 No.1 & No.4
Beethoven: String Quartets  Op.131 in C# major and Op.135 in F major
Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor Op.56 Voces intimae
Adams: Pavanne She’s So Fine
Dvořák: String Quartet in F Major Op.96 (American)
R. Murray Schafer:  String Quartet No.3

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
Yellowhead Brewery, Edmonton

Haydn: Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2
John Adams: Second String Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartet Op.131 in C# Major

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018
Knox Evangelical Free Church, Edmonton

Geoff Nuttall, violin
Owen Dalby, violin
Lesley Robertson, viola
Christopher Costanza, cello

Many years ago, when I was the music critic of the Banff Crag & Canyon and regularly reviewed events at the Banff Centre, I covered a concert in which three very famous (and very brilliant) international performers – at the Centre to give classes – played a Beethoven piano trio to an audience primarily composed of young student musicians. The performance was really pretty dreadful. At the end, much of the audience stood up in a standing ovation, but there was a significant block who remained seated, politely clapping without enthusiasm: French Canadian musicians, coming from a different culture and from a different musical education. As the audience filed out, one of them, a French Canadian violinist whom I had heard play but never met, came up to me.

“You’re the writer in the paper, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, rather astonished that she knew who I was.

“Tell it as is was!” she commanded, and hurried out.

I did.

I felt rather the same hearing the St. Lawrence String Quartet play two concerts at the Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival in Edmonton on June 19th and June 20th. Indeed, these performances made me wonder what had happened to the SLSQ. Were they just having a couple of bad days? Was it the heat (30oC outside), especially in the non-air-conditioned Knox Evangelical Free Church, affecting their performances? Or has the status of being one of Canada’s finest quartets led them to rest on their laurels?

The Quartet was last here in January, 2017, when the program was Haydn’s Op. 20 No.2, selections from John Adams’ Alleged Dances, and a Mendelssohn string quartet. Here, for the main concert at the Knox, they played Haydn’s String Quartet Op.20 No.2, John Adams’ Second String Quartet, and Beethoven’s Op.131 – a work which many in the audience will have known, and which was a substitute for the scheduled Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.3, which many in this festival audience won’t have known. As I wrote of the 2017 concert, their histrionics and their re-imaginings of Haydn are not for me, but I accept that’s largely a matter of taste; quality of playing is not.

That, on both these Summer Solstice Festival evenings, they received a standing ovation, is understandable. They do carry that reputation. They have an element of showmanship. Their qualities are those very ones that got them the first place in the 1992 Banff String Quartet Competition that started their international careers (albeit with two different members): energy and attack, especially from the first violin and cello, excellent intonation, spot-on unison, a kind of clockwork precision. Such things may be essential to a great string quartet, but in themselves are not the stuff of great music making.

The first problem was one of balance. Jeff Nuttall’s first violin dominated the proceedings, consistently louder than the other three members – both when the first violin is expected to dominate, but also when it isn’t. At the other end of the scale, I could hardly hear Lesley Robertson’s viola when playing in consort, in either venue (and I know I wasn’t the only one). And it wasn’t a question of acoustics, as, in the Dvořák piano quintet on Friday, the viola of Jean-Miguel Hernandez (ex-violist of the Fine Arts Quartet) could be heard quite clearly (and beautifully) as part of the ensemble – and I was sitting in exactly the same seat at the Knox Church for both concerts, and the two players were in identical places up front.

The second problem was one of ensemble colour and tone. Again, there was a noticeable difference between Nuttall’s first violin, and the other players. Time and again, the first violin was more rasping, more raucous (not something I remember from 2017, and certainly not evident in their recordings), made more noticeable by the general lack of vibrato that the quartet prefer. What was missing were those magical moments from a really good quartet when colour, tone, attack, from all the players all seem to coalesce as one – here it did seem, consistently, as if four individual players were playing, not one quartet. Indeed, while all the SLSQ’s energy was there, there was very little of the kind of subtlety or refinement (or, in one word, finesse) that one expects, the more experienced and older a quartet gets. I wrote back in 2017, “The ensemble is rock solid, as is the blending of sound across instruments” – rock solid they may still be, but there was very little blending of sound across the instruments in these two concerts. The third was surprising little softer playing – p, let alone pp. Again, this contrasted with their 2017 concert.

There was, of course, some attractive music-making, such as Christopher Costanza’s lovely, smooth, more introverted cello line at the beginning of second movement of Haydn Op.20 No.2 at the Knox, an effect immediately expunged by the incongruous and very loud attack when the first violin took over. The most successful of the Knox performances was Beethoven’s String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131, where their vigorous style came into its own in such passages as the Presto and the final Allegro – again, some lovely playing from Costanza.

The biggest disappointment of the Knox evening was their performance of Adams’ Second String Quartet, which was written for them and which draws on two of Beethoven’s piano works, the A flat major sonata Op 110 and the Diabelli Variations, for material. It’s not their fault that it is not one of Adams’ best works, but this performance hardly made out a good case, with a lack of shape and a rather scratchy tone. To hear them play an excerpt of this work much more convincingly, click here.

To make matters worse, their encore was a movement of a Haydn String Quartet that many of the audience had already heard them play at the Yellowhead Brewery the evening before. Surely, given their wide repertoire, they could have come up with something different?

The same might be said of that Yellowhead Brewery concert, which was MC’d with charisma by Nuttall, a kind of first violin equivalent to Simon Cowell. The title of the evening, ‘String Quartets Rock”, should really have been ‘Haydn and Beethoven String Quartets Rock’, since excepts from those two composers – including music the audience was to hear the next evening – dominated. Nothing here from, say, Bartok or Shostakovitch, let alone Schubert or Brahms. The Haydn, one of the Beethoven excepts, and the scherzo from Sibelius’ String Quartet were all taken at a breakneck speed, and even the Adams was raggedy, though with some effective bluesy cello playing – it was the pavanne She’s So Fine, which they had also included in their 2017 concert. They did, though, play an excerpt from R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No.3, but with nothing like the aplomb or the dash of their exciting 2013 YouTube performance.

Ironically, the most convincing and affecting performance of all was very much a Romantic one, of the slow movement of Dvořák’s String Quartet in F Major Op.96 (American). It was rich, emotional, and colourful, with some lovely deep tones from Nuttall. The final piece, though was something of a flop: if you are going to play an arrangement of a 53-year old song, and want the audience to sing along heartily, it doesn’t take much to print out a few word sheets, or project the words, even if it is McCartney and Lennon’s Yesterday.

Quite frankly, a chamber music festival like this deserves a little more thought than the St. Lawrence String Quartet seems to have given to their headlining appearance.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Glinka, Chausson, Ravel, and Beethoven

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Ruslan Confronts the Head
by Nicolai Ge (1831-1894)

Glinka: Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture
Chausson: Poème for Violin
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Beethoven: Symphony No.5

Laura Veeze  (violin)
Jeanne Amièle  (piano)

Conducted by Alexander Prior

May 27, 2018


What a way for the The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to close this season’s series of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Winspear on May 27! For a packed and enthusiastic audience were given one of the fastest and most exciting performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that I have heard, experienced some superb violin playing in Chausson’s well-known Poème, and had Ravel’s most-loved piano concerto and Glinka’s best-known orchestral piece to add to the mix .

The question of Beethoven’s tempi is a thorny one, and the subject of much academic debate. Beethoven’s own metronome markings are, in the first eight symphonies, really pretty fast. The tradition has been to Romanticize these symphonies, by assuming that Beethoven got his metronome marking wrong (it was a relatively new piece of technology, and anyway Beethoven was deaf for the later symphonies). This seemed to be confirmed by the way Beethoven’s music seemed to respond to a Romantic hue when taken slower.

Two great conductors, father Eric Kleiber in the 1950s and son Carlos Kleiber in 1975, showed in their recordings how exciting this symphony could be if taken faster. However, it was the movement for authentic instruments – playing Beethoven with the size of forces and the type of instruments that Beethoven would have written for – that showed that perhaps Beethoven’s metronome markings were indeed correct, for the thinner sounds de-Romanticized the works, and the faster tempi made sense.

Some mainstream conductors, such as Paavo Järvi, have shown that such tempi can work with a modern larger-scale orchestra. Alexander Prior has already indicated that, while he is perfectly capable of eliciting Romantic pace and colour where appropriate, he dislikes the Romanticizing of works that might require a less sentimental approach – his Tchaikovsky is an obvious example.

Here he started the three most famous notes in music that open Beethoven’s fifth at a break-neck speed – too fast perhaps, as that phrase both got lost and some its nobility was hidden, in part because the marked pause was very short indeed. Indeed, one feared that the orchestra might not be able to maintain such a speed (and the horns at a couple of points did indeed have problems). Where more leisured readings allow that rather more mysterious passage leading up to the oboe’s adagio solo to breathe, to open up, Prior drove the music on, creating considerable tension. Indeed, he avoided the usually tendency to dwell at greater length on the quite large number of pauses marked in the score, and as the strings and the brass in particular responded to his onward rush, it became clear how this interpretation of the symphony was shaping.

For this was placing the music firmly in its time – not in the more Gothic reaches of mid-18th Century Romanticism, but in the much less sentimental, and pithier start of the century, when the European continent was plunged into the throes of the Napoleonic Wars (and Beethoven had changing views of Napoleon, initially hero-worshipping him). Thus the faster tempi for the more martial march in the second movement seemed just right, and the whole thing led up to a really exciting, vivid, and energetic finale – a triumphant symphony that in this interpretation did seem to reflect something of war at its most gripping, of continental strategies and political movements at their most commanding. Glory, rather than grandeur, that made sense of Beethoven’s place and concerns in 1804 to 1808, when he completed the symphony.

The concert had opened, after an informative (and entertaining) introduction from the conductor (though he might consider moderating some of his riskier ad-libs), with Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture, again fast and furious at the opening, with crisp playing and idiomatic phrasing from the orchestra, a nice light touch at the second theme, and overall a performance full of fun and zest.

Chausson’s Poème for violin and orchestra is, of course, very different in feel from either of these two works. It was written for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, and if you have ever heard past the crackle of the very early 78 rpm recordings that Ysaÿe made – or indeed, Ysaÿe‘s own violin music – you can understand how the more mournful and darker elements of Chausson’s music, and the rhapsodic feel, must have exactly suited the Belgian master.

Here at the Winspear the soloist was something of a revelation. While the Dutch-Canadian violinist Laura Veeze is now a familiar figure in the first violin section of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (she came to Edmonton with her husband, the ESO’s concertmaster Robert Uchida), and I had heard her take part in chamber music (notably in Elgar’s Piano Quintet last November), I had not heard her in a solo role before. Given this performance, one wondered why not.

Chausson’s work really is rhapsodic, for the violin solo part really seems to take very little notice of the orchestra, who indeed spend most of their time following or answering the solo line (for those unfamiliar with the work, there’s a similar effect in Vaughan Williams’ well-known Lark Ascending). This puts a lot of emphasis on the tone and colour of the solo line, and it’s a difficult piece to shape, as any shape comes from how the soloist unravels that rhapsody, rather than from anything more concrete.

Veese has the right kind of mellow, consistent tone, quite big and round when required, needed for music like this. It’s combined with the kind of delicacy that is needed here, especially in the very high writing near the end. She did indeed shape the Poème convincingly – she’s certainly not (at least on this evidence) a showy player, but rather a thoughtful one, and one couldn’t help but feel that Ysaÿe himself would have enjoyed this performance. I do hope the ESO plucks her out of the first violins more often.

The soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concert in G was the young Jeanne Amièle, who who won the Sheen Piano Competition here in Edmonton in 2016 and is now a doctoral student. She brims over with confidence and enthusiasm, clearly loved playing the concerto, and has one of those enviable techniques where the most difficult runs seem effortless. That youth, perhaps, showed in lack of subtlety and variation in colour in the main, more exposed dominant piano line that Ravel so often uses here – and the second movement could have been a bit more bluesy. But the performance was a reminder of what a remarkable work this piano concerto is, with its tinges of jazz and blue, and music that has magic and yet sends itself up at one and the same time, and it will be interesting to see how Amièle’s depth of interpretation develops.