The St. Lawrence String Quartet showed an audience at East Carolina University why it is one of the more highly regarded quartets performing today. With skill, exuberance and energy to spare, the four players from Stanford University presented a technically dazzling performance of works by Beethoven, Dvořák and Berg as part of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series.
The quartet — violinists Scott St. John and Geoff Nuttall, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza — offered a full range of dynamics, from the softest pianissimo passage to the heartiest fortissimo, as well as excellent timing in entrances, pauses and cutoffs, while infusing both individual and ensemble subtleties throughout the program.
The ensemble chose an early Beethoven chamber piece, the String Quartet in A, Op. 18, No. 5, and a late chamber work by Dvořák, the String Quartet in G, Op. 106, No. 13, to open and close the program. Both compositions contain an abundance of joy and beauty, yet each in its own context. The Beethoven quartet, which is thought to have been inspired by Mozart, is, for the most part, a light and airy piece, though definitely not inconsequential. From the dancelike opening Allegro to the stately Theme and Variations in the third Andante cantabile movement and the graceful fourth Allegro movement, this quartet seems to have come from a youthful imagination, full of optimism.
The third movement was a special pleasure, a sparkler with a relatively simple opening theme followed by a cello-led fugue. The variations that followed were interesting, including some minor-key variations, and the movement closed with a near-hoedown, accompanied by noticeable foot-tapping by second violinist Nuttall. And the fourth movement, which opens with a quick four-note figure handed off from player to player, had both elegance and excitement, in which both St. John and Nuttall almost jumped out of their seats to attack the score. Anyone who thinks that a string quartet is only sedate drawing room music should watch the highly animated St. Lawrence play this movement.
The Dvořák quartet, which followed his “American” quartet and “New World” symphony, brims full of lovely Bohemian-inspired melodies and dance rhythms. The opening Allegro moderato skips along nicely to begin but shifts into a lovely quiet passage in which the first and second violins trade leads. With such a variety of moods from start to finish, this movement could stand on its own, especially the exciting ending.
The somber second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) has an air of melancholy, opening with a second violin, viola and cello trio before giving way to a solo first violin line played over a droning cello and viola. This movement employs a number of compositional techniques — melody over pizzicato accompaniment, a fine cello arpeggio, a viola counterpoint to the main theme — that keeps the listener engaged throughout. This is an intensely emotional section, highlighted by St. John’s singing lead violin.
The dancelike Molto vivace featured another rousing conclusion, and the finale, marked Andante sostenuto-Allegro con fuoco, combines both drama and tension as it builds to a climax.
Even in the spacious Wright Auditorium, the St. Lawrence's ensemble sound was wonderful, although the first violin seemed to be featured more prominently than in other string quartets in the chamber repertoire, especially in the Beethoven quartet. (One difference between the sound of this quartet and the chamber ensembles that play in the smaller Fletcher Recital Hall is that trios, quartets and quintets seem to produce a warmer, richer tone in the smaller venue, vs. a brighter sound in the auditorium.)
Alban Berg's six-movement Lyric Suite is probably a work that musicians love, but it's hard on audiences. Despite Nuttall's illuminating pre-performance explanation of the composition, it is difficult to grasp and difficult to appreciate. Berg, who was composing mainly in the 12-tone form promoted by Schoenberg at the turn of the last century, threw much of his own life into his work, and this piece contains plenty of hints relating to his passion for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin — complete with different colored inks used in the composing, and numerological and cryptographic references. Hints of melody are scattered throughout, just barely, but for a composition written out of passion, Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," for example, is much more easily appreciated and conveys passion and emotion much better.
Berg certainly put many interesting string techniques into the piece — the lowest string on the cello must be retuned down in the final movement, for example; in the third movement, the instruments are played with the wooden part of the bows on the strings, creating a busy insect-like sound that is just plain weird. Part of the fourth movement came close to fingernails on a chalkboard; part of the fifth movement could have become the background music for the shower scene in Psycho.
The difficulty in evaluating the performance of such a work is that one must assume the players are performing well, because missed notes or faulty timing would be hard to detect. And not all music from the mid-1920s came from the Second Viennese School, of course. At about the same time Berg was composing this piece came Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir, Gershwin's piano concerto, Frank Bridge's third string quartet, Hindemith's Concerto for Orchestra, even Sibelius' "Tapiola" and Tempest orchestral pieces. They are modern pieces without being inaccessible.