in: Reviews

August 27, 2016

Friday Night Special

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Hearing two ensembles as eminent and as enthusiastic about Haydn as the Borromeo Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet a week apart proved an enlightening experience. There is more than one right way to play Haydn, of course, and we got to hear two of them.

I don’t recall a previous Friday night classical concert at Maverick Concerts, although there are sometimes theater events on Fridays. If you try to guess why we had a Friday concert, you’ll probably be right: the St. Lawrence Quartet happened to have the evening free before another booking about 60 miles away. It was our good fortune to have this group, which does most of its performing on the West Coast, stop by to entertain us.

In Haydn’s Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No. 3, the difference in sound between Borromeo and St. Lawrence was immediately apparent. The Borromeo’s sound was bigger, richer, lusher; the St. Lawrence’s leaner and less full but still quite beautiful in quality. Haydn is a specialty of the St. Lawrence (as it should be for any self-respecting string quartet), and I could hear that right away. This isn’t Haydn’s best-known quartet or even his best-known period, but the ensemble had lived with the piece and played as thought it was an old friend. I particularly liked the way the players stressed the unpredictability of the first movement, full of surprises and discontinuities. (A piano teacher of mine, the late JoAnn LaTorra, told me she preferred Haydn’s piano sonatas overall to Mozart’s because they were less predictable.) The daring inventiveness of Haydn came through in the third movement, which at moments sounded like late Beethoven. And the finale, played with superb ensemble coordination and gratifyingly strong viola sound, was indeed “Allegro molto.”

I’m a fan of John Adams’s music. I think he wrote one of the great operas of the 20th century, “Nixon in China,” and I’m familiar with numerous orchestral and chamber works of his, including the earlier and delightful string quartet work John’s Book of Alleged Dances. But I’m sorry to say that I was not favorably impressed with his String Quartet No. 2, written in 2014 for the St. Lawrence Quartet. This work, in two large movements running 23 minutes, is based on fragments–what Adams calls “fractals”–from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110. It’s a daring idea and I salute the composer’s bravery, but for me it didn’t work much of the time. Maybe if you didn’t know the Beethoven original you wouldn’t find all those appearances of phrases from it distracting, but I do know it, and I did find them distracting, especially since the first movement in particular was by design not very cohesive. Sections near the end of the second movement turned rhythmically continuous and rather exciting. If the whole work had been written that way I would have enjoyed it much more. As it stands, I’d have to consider this piece an interesting failure. The ensemble’s deeply committed playing was obviously not to blame for my disappointment.

St. Lawrence Quartet (Eric Cheng photo)

St. Lawrence Quartet (Eric Cheng photo)

The St. Lawrence String Quartet began to build its international reputation with a 1998 EMI recording of two of Schumann’s String Quartets. The program concluded with one of those, the Quartet No. 3, in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3. Two members of the ensemble have joined since the recording was made, but that didn’t matter, as the music–like the Haydn–had a perceptible “lived-in” quality. I greatly appreciated the highly rhetorical quality of the first movement. And overall the piece sounded–as pointed out in Maverick’s typically excellent program notes by Miriam Villchur Berg–as though Schumann had been spending time with Haydn before he wrote his quartets. Not a bad place to hang out! We even got an encore, the slow movement of Haydn’s Op. 20, No. 1, which served as a benediction on the entire evening.

Here’s hoping the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s schedule enables them to visit us in Woodstock more often!

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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