St. Lawrence String Quartet

The following is reprinted with permission from the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 24 March 2005. Additions in brackets.

The 2004-2005 season of the Artist Series continued on Tuesday evening [22 March] with a riveting performance by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Florida State University’s Rudy Diamond Auditorium.

Franz Joseph Haydn may not have invented the String Quartet as both genre and medium, but he was present at the creation. The Quartet (Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman, violins, Lesley Roberstson, viola, and Christopher Costanza, cello) opened with an inspired performance of the Viennese master’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 2, “The Joke”.

The first movement was given with just the right balance of lilt and drive, aided by the group’s flexible tempos. This movement gave early indication of what would become clear was the Quartet’s modus operandi: performance as listening. They played every movement of every piece on the program as if deeply listening to the music, as a process of discovery. A good example of this was how they would linger over certain dissonances in this first movement before moving on to their resolution.

The E-flat Quartet has the nickname “Joke” because of the haltingly humorous way the piece ends. The St. Lawrence had set up the joke throughout their performance by emphasizing the silences that dot the piece’s surface. They were rewarded for their efforts by appreciative laughter and sustained applause.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets stand as one of the great quartet cycles in history. The composer explores every aspect of his musical language and expressive terrain in these focused and intense works. The Seventh Quartet (f#-minor, Op. 108), is an essay in irony and quiet despair. The reading by the St. Lawrence was marked by great ensemble playing, and a strong sense of style, astringent and close to the vest necessary and expansive and open when called for.

The program proper closed with a taut and gripping performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127. This Quartet is the first of a group of five quartets Beethoven composed near the end of life, and they stand as among the most personal musical documents we have. In these works, which are both concentrated in their expression and expansive in how this expression is played out, the composer grapples with ideas and issues that are truly beyond words.

Of special note in this reading were the timbral intensity maintained virtually throughout, the excellent ensemble dynamics, and the beautifully lyrical transitions of the second, theme and variations, movement.

The Quartet returned to the stage after an enthusiastic ovation. Calling it “sherbet after that heavy meal”, Mr. Nuttall announced the Scherzo of Maurice Ravel’s Quartet as an encore. The St. Lawrence played it with flair and joy, in a ravishingly sensual reading.

[The St. Lawrence String Quartet is the Quartet-in-Residence at Stanford University. FSU, can we get one?]

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