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Dueling Fiddlers in Front of Waves


The concert by the acclaimed St. Lawrence String Quartet on April Fool’s Day in the extraordinary Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport was for me a vivid mix of triumph and tragedy, with Haydn suffering grievous harm, but Golijov and Beethoven emerging triumphant.

In recent years, the St. Lawrence, founded in 1989, has adopted the habit of the Emerson and Orion Quartets: the fiddlers switch seats. The rewards for the two violinists are clear: it’s great to taste such different delights; they bring remarkably disparate responsibilities and rewards. On a resplendent Sunday afternoon, with the hall’s curtain open, both to let the instruments bounce their sounds off the glass and to offer the audience the gift of viewing the ocean beyond, Geoff Nuttall, first violinist from the Quartet’s get-go, and Scott St. John, who joined five years ago following a solo career, took their turns.

But for the music and the audience, the rewards aren’t always clear. Attending a concert not only brings the wonders of music, but also the potential for exercising the seemingly irresistible impulse to comparison shop. For me, it’s distracting enough to think back on how others might have played something. Placing the choice right in front of you compounds things further, particularly if you then begin to conjure up winners and losers.

On this occasion, when it came to two great composers from the past, Haydn was the loser, and Beethoven the winner. To start out, Haydn’s justly beloved D Minor “Quinten” Quartet, Op. 76, No. 2, was led by Nuttall, and for my taste things went badly. Many quartets seem prone to an irresistible temptation to gussy Haydn up, and this was such an occasion. Haydn was an elegant, charming composer with a sly sense of humor; jokes almost invariably turn up somewhere; his quartets flow out of a happy heart. But witticism and changes in color shouldn’t hit you over the head, and the exaggerated accents, on and off vibrato, and prominent portamento that Nuttall as leader promoted hit me as exactly wrong. Moreover, the Quartet demonstrated how difficult it is to play Haydn in tune. Particularly at the start, intonation was badly off in the high registers, and the octaves between the two violins in the Menuetto were approximations. In all, the Quartet came across as a mini-concerto, with the inner and lower voices unduly deferential. I’m not saying the first violin shouldn’t lead this work (witness the performances by the Amadeus and Aeolian Quartets), but it should be all of a piece. And what a contrast between this and the famed Haydn recordings by the original and remarkably egalitarian Tokyo Quartet! In Haydn, my vote goes for their approach. But in fairness to the St. Lawrence ensemble, the audience loved the bravado and the flamboyance.

For the Beethoven Op. 59, No. 1, the first “Rasumovsky” Quartet, Nuttall and St. John changed places, and the result was magical. St. John is an elegant, refined player with many colors that merge seamlessly. His control of the violin is exemplary. He soars calmly over his colleagues, and his sound has a charming lyricism to it. And in this case the other voices were also fine. Nuttall was a terrific second violinist. His exuberance was just right; he brought explosive energy and rhythmic intensity to his part. He reminded me of the irrepressible Alexander Schneider playing second fiddle in the Budapest Quartet (with which I grew up at New York’s Metropolitan Museum), much as St. John brought to mind the patrician Josef Roisman at first violin. And Christopher Costanza, the St. Lawrence cellist, was rock solid, spinning long, elegant lines when called for, while Lesley Robertson, the founding violist, didn’t miss a trick. However, a bit more energy from her might have helped; my fantasy was that she was a bit bemused watching the old and new boys hard at work. All in all, first class Beethoven. A few more layers between the pianissimos and the fortissimos, and a bit more room for the audience to breathe would have made this performance world class.

Sandwiched between the acknowledged greats came “Kohelet,” a work in progress by Osvaldo Golijov. Played in its initial incarnation for the first time last year, it is inspired by Ecclesiastes, in which Kohelet, Son of David, proclaimed (according to Wikipedia) that, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…” Golijov came on stage to explain that he plans on a three movement work, but we heard only the first and the second, with the latter still in evolution after a two-hour working session that morning by the composer and Quartet. “Kohelet” is highly appealing already, and the composer assured the audience that hearing it in Rockport meant that the sea and wind would be prominent in its further creation. The first movement has the three lower voices bustling with complex, interlocking rhythms in the background (playing second violin here also, Nuttall, with his long hair flowing, reminded us that the St. Lawrence is based at Stanford in Palo Alto, and noted that they were thinking ‘motorcycle’ as they developed their inner parts). Over this quiet, complex, but tightly knit murmur, the first violin draws long, often double stopped lines. The movement is accessibly, mellow, and evocative, and with the four players silhouetted in front of the sea, it provided a feast for both the ears and eyes. Such writing certainly explains why Golijov is increasingly popular as a composer for movies. The shape of the second movement eluded me at first hearing, but tremolo traded with exquisite taste among the instruments was highly effective, and the violist spun some lovely lines. I much look forward hearing the completed work.

The afternoon ended with a short encore, the Menuetto from Haydn’s Op. 74, No. 1. In the second strain, Nuttall, back as first fiddler, made amends for his earlier shaky start. It was quiet, wistful, and beautifully tuned: a fine end to an engrossing concert.

I can’t resist a quick comment about the Quartet’s instruments, given all the fuss these days about double blind studies of violin sound, the results of which are both letting modern makers jack up their prices and leaving old instruments at risk for going unsold. I happen to think that experiments in smallish rooms filled with people and recording equipment have little in common with the demands put on instruments by a concert hall, so I’m among the group that thinks Stradivari or Guarneri are more than historical curiosities or cash cows for avaricious sellers. But since my real life focuses at times on controlled trials, I listened to the Quartet during the first half without knowing who made their instruments and unblinded myself only at intermission. In Nuttall’s hands, I heard a thick, unfocused sound without much color or “spin.” St. John’s violin sounded elegant, a bit thin perhaps, but with fine penetration and lots of character. The viola was somewhat bland, and the cello had by far the most color and layers, although it did not have an enormous voice. What does this mean? My adjectives are imprecise and subjective; players and halls change sound enormously; all in all a far cry from science. But for what it’s worth, turns out both Nuttall and Robertson were playing instruments that are just a few years old; St. John’s violin is by the great American maker, J. B. Squier, who made his instruments in America in the late 1800s, and Costanza’s cello is a Venetian instrument from 100 years earlier. Those are the facts. For stringed instrument aficionados, make of them as you wish!

Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the sixteenth century on.

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