If your mental image of a string quartet is four white-haired men in tails, or at least tuxedos, the St. Lawrence Quartet will leave that image forever altered. Joined by the equally-effervescent pianist Stephen Prutsman at a performance sponsored by the Chamber Arts Society, the SLSQ’s vigorous and exciting playing (with energetic both-feet-off-the-floor choreography by violinist Geoff Nuttall) brought exemplary performances of quartets by Benjamin Britten and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and the piano quintet of César Franck.
The year 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, widely regarded as the greatest English composer of his time; the many observances of his centennial bring opportunities to hear not only his best-known works such as his operas and the War Requiem, but also his vocal and instrumental chamber music. His second string quartet, in C, Op. 36, was written in 1945 in commemoration of the death of English composer Henry Purcell in 1695. The first movement, Allegro calmo senza rigore, is in sonata form, albeit with three themes instead of the usual two. The four musicians (violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson, and ‘cellist Christopher Costanza) played it with great elan, most noticeably in the final section where Britten combines all three of his themes, bringing us back down to earth with an eight-note postlude.
The second movement, Vivace, serves as the scherzo, but its minor key and dark mood likely reflect the ardently-pacifist Britten’s mood during World War II. Even when the two violins are playing in parallel thirds, usually a happy sound, the underlying harmonies are stark. The SLSQ’s virtuoso bowing techniques were on display as tremolandos, martellatos, and cross-string bowings abounded before the movement’s abrupt end.
In the third movement, lasting as long as the first two combined, Britten writes in a form beloved by Purcell, the chaconne. Its 21 variations of a 9-measure ground-bass theme show Britten’s genius in creating new soundscapes from a quartet; the St. Lawrence Quartet played it magnificently.
In like manner, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 2012 Voyage, commissioned to celebrate the centennials of the founding members of the original Galimir String Quartet explores more ways in which the various instruments of a string quartet can be combined. Among the sonorities were a ‘cello solo accompanied by the other three performers playing pizzicato, followed later by the viola and violin taking the solo role. With harmonies varying in style from the 19th century through the 21st, Zwilich’s music takes the listener on a sonic journey, with many ports of harmonic and textural call along the way. This new music, played with assurance and verve by the SLSQ, deserves to be heard many times again.
All-around musician and featured pianist Stephen Prutsman, fresh from an early-afternoon master class for Duke University piano students, joined the SLSQ in Franck’s piano quintet, curiously identified in the program as being “for Piano and Strings in F minor.” (Actually, it’s the quintet that’s in F minor, not the piano and strings, but I digress.) This is a relatively late work, written when Franck was 57. It is quintessential Franck, his unique harmonic language in full bloom with his shifting tonalities reached by sudden half-step forays, his beloved imitative, almost-canonic treatments of his romantic melodies, and his unifying architectural use of cyclical form as a melody is introduced in one movement and recurs in a later movement.
This was a “Bravo!”-producing performance, justifiably so. From the beginning dialogues between piano and strings to the no-holds-barred return of the principal theme in the final movement (where I wished for the 9-foot concert-grand’s lid to be at short-stick as Prutsman’s thunderous playing occasionally overpowered the full quartet), we heard a truly virtuoso and musical performance. Many in the full house at Duke’s Reynolds Auditorium were on their feet to voice their appreciation, and were rewarded with an encore: the premiere performance of Prutsman’s arrangement for piano and string quartet of Antonín Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dance in E minor. Its Bohemian grace and the calmer, elegant playing were welcome additions to the program, displaying yet another facet of the musicians’ talents.