Chamber Music Review



St. Lawrence String Quartet in Pinehurst: Maturity with A New Infusion

January 13, 2003 - Pinehurst, NC:


CVNC's coverage of the 2002 Spoleto Festival USA reported the departure of cellist Marina Hoover, a founding member, from the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which had its genesis in Toronto in 1989. Since winning the Banff Prize in 1992, the ensemble has frequently performed on the famous Dock Street Chamber Music series and made several Triangle visits as well. News stories reported their search for a replacement, with some fifteen cellists making music with them informally. Juilliard Quartet cellist Joel Krosnick introduced them to his former graduate student, Alberto Parrini. Since he had worked closely with both parties, he thought that it would be a perfect match. Based on the glowing results heard January 13 in Owens Auditorium on the campus of Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, Krosnick was a perfect musical matchmaker.

Intense, fresh reassessments of standard repertory works have been characteristic of the St. Lawrence from the beginning. The whole Pinehurst concert seemed to reveal increased depth and maturity with a wider palette of subtle nuances in dynamics and expressive phrasing. Too many touring quartets treat early classical quartets, often used to open programs, as dutiful warm-ups. Not so the St. Lawrence, which treated Haydn's Quartet in D, Op. 76, No. 5, with the care a new commission would have received. Balances within the quartet were ideal, as was the close matching of phrasing. First violinist Geoff Nuttall's intonation in the exposed high positions was immaculate, and his perfect blending with second violinist Barry Shiffman was a delight. Cellist Parrini had ample opportunities to reveal his warm, rich tone. Violist Lesley Robertson glowed in some of the finest viola solo parts in all the composer's quartets. The printed program had several movements mislabeled; they were Allegretto, Largo: cantabile e mesto, Minuetto: Allegro, and Finale: Presto.

The rest of the program featured works that the ensemble has recently recorded on the EMI Classics label. While in the throes of a manic high, Robert Schumann composed the three quartets of his Op. 41 within a two-week period. He had spent much of 1842 studying the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as well as Bach's contrapuntal techniques. The music exhibits the contradictions between classical and romantic forms. Each strand of the four-part canon in the opening movement of the Quartet in A Minor was clear as they were woven through the texture of the first movement. The second movement is a dashing and swirling scherzo with two lovely trios. The slow movement featured subtle dynamic shading and, in addition to famous melody taken in turn by the violin and cello, gave rich opportunities to the cellist and violist. The last movement burst with vitality, with the rhythmic opening theme and eighth-note runs treated in multiple melodic directions; the performance ended in high spirits. This is a rewarding work too seldom programmed in the Triangle.

The flavor of Russian folk music permeates Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 1, sometimes called "Accordion" because of the rising and falling dynamics in the opening chords. The St. Lawrence players were adept in dealing with all the mercurial changes in the first movement. In the second movement, the muted strings positively melted as they sang the famous melody based on a Ukrainian folk song, "Sidel Vanya." The peasant-dance quality of the third movement was well brought out as the trio of the violins and viola played complex figurations over the sustained drone of Parrini's cello. The Finale is an exuberant dance with a whirlwind coda. Like the Schumann, this Tchaikovsky quartet is rarely heard in our region. Enthusiastic applause led to another dance, as an encore - the Minuet of Mozart's Quartet in E-Flat, K.428.

From their beginnings, many critics have censured first violinist Nuttall's constant physical antics. Since his marriage he no longer actually stomps the floor but he does constantly twist about or seem to pedal an imaginary bicycle. His playing is technically immaculate, however, and the depth and sincerity of his musicianship is obvious. If the pantomime bothers, do as I do when I listen to Menahem Pressler (well known for swooning about above the keyboard) - close your eyes and listen closely.

The Classical Concert Series is invariably well attended. It has a successful blend of rising young talent and established musicians, and its Pinehurst venue is within a 75-minute drive of the Triangle and Triad. Use the Sandhills Community College web page (at http://www.sandhills.cc.nc.us/ [inactive 5/04]) for directions. Violinist Timothy Fain is next (2/17), and the series ends (3/12) with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.