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CHAMBER MUSIC REVIEW

St. Lawrence String Quartet

Jon Kimura Parker

December 3, 2006

St. Lawrence String Quartet


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The Quartetless Quartet

By David Bratman

It’s not often that a string quartet presents a concert without any works for string quartet on it. Nor is it often — at a formal classical concert, at least — that the audience takes its seats not knowing what works are going to be played and not even knowing about the unexpected seating arrangements onstage. But that’s what happened on Sunday at Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

As St. Lawrence Quartet cellist Christopher Costanza explained on taking the stage, the quartet’s first violinist, Geoff Nuttall, became a rather overdue father a few days ago. Time to rehearse major quartets by Haydn and Beethoven with his colleagues has been lacking recently. So those pieces had to be replaced.

The quartet was able to prepare the third intended work, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in G Minor, Op. 57 (1940), with pianist Jon Kimura Parker, as scheduled. But Nuttall was absent from the rest of the program. His colleagues — Costanza, violist Lesley Robertson, and violinist Scott St. John — played Antonín Dvorák’s Quartet for Piano and Strings No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 87 (1889) with Parker; and Ernst von Dohnányi’s Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op. 10 (1902) by themselves.

Young genius, tiny gem

The Serenade, five movements of very early Dohnányi, is a tiny gem of a work — lightweight but much less whimsical than its model, Beethoven’s Serenade in D, Op. 8, for the same instrumentation. The scherzo and the rondo finale, in particular, are sober and academic in flavor, but without being too heavy. Much of the work consists of dialogues and exchanges between the violin and viola, while the cello sets the groundwork beneath them, often in pizzicato. Dohnányi was a genius at writing clearly for the individual instruments and the players made the most of it. The variety of tone in Robertson’s viola playing was especially notable. She was appropriately raw and rough in the marcato sections of the opening and closing march, dry but incisive in the more rigid counterpoint movements, and warm in her lyrical solos. One especially long viola solo took up the first half of the second movement.

Even in a work where he’s the only violinist, St. John is a born second violinist. That’s intended as a compliment. His tone is darker and richer than Nuttall’s, well suited to occupy the space between the first violin and the viola. The difference between the two came out in their duets and exchanges in the Shostakovich Quintet. Nuttall’s tone here was at its purest and sweetest, especially in the very high notes, which he emitted with astonishing tenderness. In response, St. John played not only at a lower pitch, but with a heavier sound — it could hardly have been lighter than Nuttall’s. But the difference was not so extreme as to be out of balance.

The Shostakovich Quintet is often played, but it’s a difficult work to find a proper voice for. It begins with a prelude and fugue, and has some other touches of the Baroque. But no work of Shostakovich’s is effective in the cool, emotionless style in which Baroque music is often played. The players of this performance were emotionally connected to the music. In the slow movements, the strings seemed to be huddling together in defiance of the outside world. The program notes described the scherzo as “ebullient,” but the players wisely ignored that ill-chosen adjective. Here the strings actually exceeded the hammering piano in portraying creepiness and brutality.

Resignation after the brutality

The finale is the quintet’s most difficult movement. Most Shostakovich finales are either hollow triumphs or suicide notes. This one should convey quiet, resigned acceptance. The strings in this performance, playing together, were beautifully expressive, giving an almost Gallic shrug of resignation and even bending some notes slightly for that perfect added touch of quizzicality.

At the piano, Parker gave the Shostakovich an appropriately dry, ironic tone, but stayed in the background and let the strings dominate the work. He had more of a chance to be the center of attention in the Dvorák Quartet. So did Costanza, who seemed to have more solos in the slow movement of this piece than in the rest of the concert put together. Like Nuttall’s violin, Costanza’s cello has a pure, sweet tone in the upper register that never sounds as if it’s straining.

This quartet is overshadowed in the repertory by the Piano Quintet that Dvorák had written two years earlier, and it must be said that the quintet is simply a better work. The performers gave full effort, but on this first hearing the outer movements seemed dull, as if the composer were measuring out lengths of musical wallpaper. It didn’t help that this essentially lighthearted work followed Shostakovich’s piece. Instead of a refreshing dessert, it seemed trivial. Shostakovich was emotionally evasive enough to pass the censor. By contrast, Dvorák apparently didn’t care that he was being evasive.

Where the quartet came to life was in the inner movements. The slow movement starts calmly enough, but rises to sanguinary heights of anguish in the middle. The third movement Ländler provided the delightful refreshment that the outer movements didn’t quite achieve. Most appealing here were some piano passages — decorations on the theme in trills, and coy phrases in high parallel octaves — where Dvorák seemed to be inventing honky-tonk piano style before its time. Parker played these for all the wit they were worth, and pure fun broke out for a few moments.

Dinkelspiel’s acoustics were excellent at this concert. Every movement of bow against string could be distinctly heard throughout the concert, and in row F, the players sounded almost as if they were sitting in our laps.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved