A Fine Canadian Quartet Visits London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Golijov, Dvořák: St Lawrence String Quartet. Wigmore Hall, London, 17.3.2013 (CC)

Beethoven String Quartet in B flat, Op. 18/6
Golijov Qohelet (2011) UK première
Dvořák String Quartet No. 14 in A flat, Op, 105

This was an interesting programme given by a major Canadian string quartet. The St Lawrence Quartet has been Quartet in Residence at Stanford University since 1998. Their recordings have been critically applauded, so the present concert afforded an opportunity to experience them live. They did not disappoint.

The Beethoven provided a substantial opener – especially with the first movement exposition repeat taken – and introduced the audience to the St Lawrence’s superb, balanced sound. One thing: the overall impression was that they were loud. The gradations from pp to ff were there, it was just that the pianissimo starting point was louder than one might have imagined. They also managed to project a wide range of styles within the first movement, from implied country dance to high drama.

A pity the clearly meticulously rehearsed Adagio ma non troppo, which comes second, was not fully interior as a statement; better was the hectic scherzo and the tender delicacy of the finale’s Adagio – this finale is subtitled “La Melancholia”, and with good reason. This was a multifaceted reading of much strength, that in the final analysis just missed true immersion in Beethoven’s expressive space.

The Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, born in Argentina, but with Jewish Eastern European parentage, is possibly best known for Ayre. The St Lawrence Quartet has been associated with Golijov in the form of their 2002 EMI Grammy-nominated recording of Yiddishbbuk. Here, then, was the UK première of the 2011 piece Qohelet, “inspired by some of the teachings and poetic images in Ecclesiastes”, as the composer states. Ecclesiastes is also known as Qohelet. There is obviously a fluid element to the piece. The St Lawrence had played the piece in Carnegie Hall, in an all-Golijov programme in February this year. The second violin, Scott St John, told us to ignore our programme notes, for the order of movements had been reversed.

The piece is certainly atmospheric. Distant memories of South American melodies are set against col legno tremolandi. There is a deeply lyric vein here, and much beauty. The music’s rise to a climax of notable intensity, the long violin melody over a minimalist-influenced accompaniment, is perfectly plotted. It is quite a short piece, though, just less than a quarter of an hour; it makes its point well, if not earth-shatteringly.

The post-interval treat was a truly lovely account of the Dvořák A flat Quartet of 1895. This is a major piece, just shy of forty minutes in duration, whose intimations of Wagner in the first movement’s slow introduction introduce a welcome sense of exploration. The St Lawrence Quartet’s intonation in the first half had been impeccable, and their excellence in this regard paid real dividends here. More, the players successfully managed to hold together what can appear to be quite a sprawling structure. After a beautifully spiky Scherzo, the true highlight of the performance was revealed to be the hushed intensity of the third movement, Lento e molto cantabile. The whole of this mesmeric movement was beautifully voiced; the resonant contributions of violist Lesley Robertson were particularly ravishing. The gruff solo cello in the finale’s opening brought perfect contrast, ushering in the multifaceted movement. A superb performance.

Colin Clarke