The St Lawrence Quartet Introduce John Adams’ Second String Quartet to the UK

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Adams, Janáček: St Lawrence String Quartet (Geoff Nuttall & Owen Dalby [violins], Lesley Robertson [viola], Christopher Costanza [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.12.2016. (CS)

Haydn – String Quartet in E flat major Op.20 No.1; String Quartet in C major Op.20 No.2
John Adams – String Quartet No.2 (UK première)
Janáček – String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’

This was the first time I had heard the St Lawrence Quartet perform. I was attracted to this Wigmore Hall recital by the programming of John Adams’ String Quartet No.2, a UK première. The St Lawrence Quartet have a long and fruitful association with Adams. The composer’s First Quartet, commissioned by the Juilliard School, was first performed by the St Lawrence Quartet in January 2009; Absolute Jest for solo quartet and orchestra, based on fragments from Beethoven (principally drawn from the Op.131 and Op.135 string quartets) was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to celebrate its centenary, and, having given the first performance in March 2015, the St. Lawrence String Quartet has toured and recorded the work.

The Quartet’s playing struck me as vibrant and theatrical. The sound is intensely focused; vibrato is often sparing and tight, and tone colours are finely delineated, sometimes straying into challenging aural hues and textures. The ensemble articulation is impressively well-prepared and slick: bow strokes are well-defined, sometimes idiosyncratic. Dynamics are detailed and meticulous; intonation is flawless. The four players have strong individual characters and voices, and a lot of drama is created by the tension between assertive pronouncements. But, it adds up to a convincing whole.

Adams’ Second Quartet was, however, less persuasive. Like Absolute Jest, it is based upon tiny fragments – ‘fractals’ – of Beethoven: principally drawn from the Sonata for Piano in A flat major Op.110 and the Diabelli Variations. The Quartet comprises two movements. The first Allegro molto is vehement and vital, and while there is a softer oscillating melody at the start of the second movement, Andantino, there is much storm and tempest too, and a final Energico whose dissonant unrest propels the first violin higher and higher into an abandoned release. Aggression finally slumps into dejection. I found, however, that there was insufficient variety, of material and presentation; and – oddly, given the forcefulness of the motifs and the vigour of their delivery – there was a strange sense of detachment from the meaning invested in the original motivic material.

The opening Allegro molto was wracked with rhythmic agitation – insistent, unstable, like a persistent itch! The concordance of the players’ staccato objections and chromatic slithers was impressive; the musicians ‘dug in’ at the heel of the bow – not afraid to create a gritty, hard tone – then allowed their flying upbows to whip through the air, like slicing blades. The release of fury into a feverish, wild dervish of repetitive motifs and rhythms was energising but the movement settled on an uneasy half-cadence. The Andantino had moments of lyricism, and at times rich chordal passages assumed a Beethovian weight; the firm, stable voice of cellist Christopher Costanza provided some respite from fraught motivic density, before frenzy resumed in the Energico.  The hyperactivity of the latter – as viola and second violin leapt in violent arcs across the strings – was such that I was reminded of the first time, as a violin-playing teenager, that I heard the Große Fuge and thought that Beethoven must have been insane.

There was a similar urgency and edginess about the St Lawrence’s performance of Janáček’s First Quartet, the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’. Here, the nervous tension was fitting for the musical narrative, but at times I missed a complementary Romantic expansiveness at the peaks of emotion; there was little rubato and a persistent sense of haste. The four instrumental voices assumed strong independent characters, and Lesley’s Robertson’s viola spoke powerfully. I loved the enrichening and warming of the sound towards the close of the first movement, which conveyed genuine passion and joy. The second movement contrasted an eerie elusiveness with furious, frenzied urgency – the ‘motoring’ motifs flew lightly by – and the St Lawrence made a convincing whole of contrasting modes of expression. The cello’s third movement theme was saturated in a powerful pathos, but the elegiac was not allowed to dominate and there was a rapid, compelling movement towards a glassy, shimmering tremolo which was itself juxtaposed with the ghastly clarity of stabbing motifs, penetrating pizzicato and buzzing trills. Despite the anxiety generated, the St Lawrence were able to conjure a sense of euphoria at the moments of musical expanse, though the close retreated to a discomforting pianissimo of abrasive apprehension.   Great rhetorical power characterised the final movement; lamenting hopelessness was countered by passages of an exuberant theatricality which was uplifting.

These two central quartets were framed by Haydn’s Op.20 quartets. The first Eb major quartet of the group (1772) foreshadowed the robustness of the Adams work which would follow. This was not intimate eighteenth-century chamber music; rather showmanship and dramatic high spirits were the touchstones. If tonal warmth was at times lacking in the Allegro moderato then the rhythmic energy never flagged. The main theme of the Trio of the Menuetto was striking partially because it was almost the first time we had heard a legato phrase. Yet, the gentle evenness of the Affettuoso e sostenuto calmed all preceding tension, with impressively focused tone from both first violinist Geoff Nuttall and cellist Costanza as they scaled their respective, contrasting realms. The staccatos of the Finale: Presto had as much bite as the movement’s surging syncopations. It was exciting to watch the ‘follow-through’ of the fleet bow strokes – a veritable musical fencing match! When the breathless agitation settled into four voices speaking as one, there was a sense of lightness and rightness.

I felt that the final work, Haydn’s Op.20 No.2 saw the St Lawrence most successfully match delivery and material. There was a sense of expanse and air that had sometimes been lacking earlier in the evening, and the opening of the first movement Moderato was notable for the openness and brightness of the sound. The development section generated excitement as the rising arpeggio phrases were counter-pointed, and now there was a real sense of conversational familiarity. The movement closes with a vanishing coda of delicacy and grace. The Capriccio was noteworthy for its combination of reservation, restraint and conviction; the tuning of the opening theme, in octaves, was impeccable. While the cello established an elegiac air, the interjections of the other voices suggested an agitation beneath the composed surface. There was more variety of tone here than there had been so far in this recital: the Menuetto juxtaposed sweet-toned playing with the contrast of the translucent high violin above the cello’s low drone. The complexities of the closing fugue were perfectly controlled and structured, confirming the St Lawrence’s technical prowess and the players’ ability to balance robust assurance with elegant restraint.

Claire Seymour

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