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.

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