St. Lawrence Quartet at its height in Mozart and Mendelssohn

By Greg Stepanich

 To see the St. Lawrence String Quartet these days is to see a seasoned ensemble at the height of its powers, performing beautifully, taking interpretive risks and communicating with the kind of urgency that makes four people sitting in a half-circle playing stringed instruments seem like the most vital form of artistic expression anyone would want to engage in.

 That’s the sort of music-making that serves the composers best, too, and for an audience Sunday afternoon at the Society for the Four Arts in Palm Beach, the Canadian foursome created a sense of discovery around the pieces on the program — Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn — that buttressed their sheer sonic pleasure. Clarinetist Todd Palmer, who joined the quartet for the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, fit right in with the St. Lawrence as an eager partner in its journey of renewal.

 All three works, and the encore as well, were written at the end of their authors’ careers, and in the case of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 6 (in F minor, Op. 80), it comes close to being the last composition of any kind he wrote before his premature death in November 1847. This is a harrowing piece, a grim masterwork suffused with a kind of hysterical energy that makes it very much unlike the music we usually associate with Mendelssohn.

 The St. Lawrence –violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza — delved right in from the first angry, buzzing tremolando to the last ferocious measures, rarely lifting the sense of driven fury that makes this music so compelling. All four members of the group appeared to share the same tense focus and commitment, showing admirable unity of ensemble at broad changes of dynamic and tempo.

 In the third-movement Adagio, each of the other players pulled well back when it was time for one of the group to pick up a phrase of the radiant song with which this piece opens. That might sound like no more than common musicianly courtesy, but in much string quartet playing — and this partly because of the character of the repertoire for such groups — the first violin in particular tends to dominate, with the cello not far behind. But in this movement, St. John and Robertson’s brief lead lines came strikingly, and beautifully, to the fore.

 If grief and rage were the operative elements of the Mendelssohn quartet, then high spirits and surprise, tied to brute power, were the characteristics of the opening work, the 67th and final string quartet of Franz Joseph Haydn (in F, Op. 77, No. 2). Dynamic contrast is crucial in this remarkable piece, and the St. Lawrence complied, making the soft passages whisper and the loud ones thunder so that Haydn’s distinctive style of compositional argument could come through.

 There might have been too much forcefulness at times; in the second movement, a kind of lopsided minuet none of Haydn’s contemporaries could have danced to, cellist Costanza hammered his repeated two-note rhythmic fragment before the cadence, making it sound almost too primitive. A minor point, and more than compensated for by the third movement, in which Nuttall played the nearly static theme with a restrained, almost bloodless tone that unfolded into strategic warmth when the middle voices joined in. Costanza played the same theme with full-voiced richness when it came to his turn, while Nuttall floated above with exceptional sotto-voce lightness as he maneuvered his way through high-floating filigree.

 The second half of the concert featured the Mozart quintet and Palmer, a fine American clarinetist who possesses a big, well-rounded sound and an accomplished technique that served him perfectly Sunday afternoon. He and the St. Lawrence were excellent partners, blending their respective sounds and allowing each side of the clarinet-strings equation to have its complete say when it was time: the second movement Larghetto, for instance, in which the quartet played as gently as possible under Palmer’s soft, full statement of the main theme.

 The same distinctiveness the quartet applied to its interpretations of Haydn and Mendelssohn also were in evidence here in the finale, where each of the individual variations stood out sharply  from one another, virtually as if they were separate pieces instead of jugglings of the same material. The five musicians also clearly enjoyed playing together, with both Palmer and Nuttall adding tasteful ornamentation here and there, a nice little touch of contemporary performance practice and a willingness to take a chance on the fly.

 For an encore, the group played Palmer’s arrangement of the much-beloved Mozart motet, Ave verum corpus (K. 618). Palmer had some slight difficulty with the highest notes, sounding somewhat strained at the end, but overall it was an effective arrangement and a hint at other possibilities for the clarinet quintet repertory.

Posted in Performances

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Tue Feb 24, 2009
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