And the phrase “develop and mature” was brought to my mind when I mentally compared Thursday’s concert to one I reviewed for the Globe and Mail back in 2008. At the time, I noted the quartet’s “constantly aggressive and highly inflected interpretations.” I added, “It’s as though they are performing under ultraviolet light, giving everything they do a bright, purplish hue. How well this approach works depends on the repertoire they’ve chosen.”
How to account for this change? Of course, the players are older, and have given a lot of concerts since 2007. Also, there have been a few personnel changes in the SLSQ over the years that have inevitably lead to alterations in style. However, I can’t help thinking that the quartet’s dedication, in recent years, to the music of Haydn may also have something to do with it.
For the last few years, the St. Lawrences have made a “cause” of Haydn, giving his string quartets a prominent place in their repertoire. A couple of years ago, I interviewed the SLSQ’s first violinist Geoff Nuttall for the Houston Chronicle about playing Haydn quartets. “Haydn was a master of creating something incredible out of sparse material,“ he told me. “He could work with a few notes like a magician to make something that’s emotionally meaningful. He had an incredible imagination – with just four instruments he created a whole world of tone and gesture.”
Thursday evening’s concert demonstrated that Nuttall’s words are consistent with the quartet’s playing. In the hands of the St. Lawrences, both quartets from Op. 20 were poised, detailed and elegant, featuring a transparency and sweetness of tone I’d not heard from the SLSQ before. Moreover, each movement unfolded like a well-made drama, with its own unique characteristics: for instance, the sweet, innocent charms of the slow movement of Quartet No. 1, or the slightly sinister quality of the minuet in No. 5.
As for the rest of the program, neither the Janáček nor the Berger sounded anything like the Haydn quartets: for both pieces, the ultraviolet lights were turned up, with vivid results. Yet there was an underlying commitment to the same musical ethos that informed the two Op. 20 quartets: great attention to detail and narrative drama.
In the Kreutzer Sonata, the quartet deftly negotiated sudden changes in texture, tempo and Affekt. There were passages of warmth, introspection, intensity, and more than a few jarring moments – including the quartet’s fierce sul ponticello playing.
Berger’s String Quartet No. 6, “Swallow,” was written for the SLSQ two years ago, and recently revised. (The composer – a multi-talented scientist and musician – is a colleague of the four St. Lawrence members at Stanford University.) Stylistically, it tips its hat to Bartók and Lutosławski. Technically, it stretches the string-quartet medium to its limits, with its microtones, pizz-gliss effects, and plenty of Black Angels-style “electric insect” tremolo gestures. And like Janáček, Berger’s writing can turn on a dime. Throughout all five movements, the St. Lawrences were on top of the situation, giving a tight, solid performance.
Has the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s embrace of Haydn permeated and altered the overall style of the ensemble? To be sure, the quartet`s respect for Haydn and the musical lessons his music teaches was apparent in their playing of his music – and even bled into the other works on the program. There are probably a lot of string quartets in the world that would benefit from delving into the music of Papa Haydn as the SLSQ has done.
© Colin Eatock 2017