February 13, 2008

Playing the Same Game

St. Lawrence String Quartet visits Berlin


Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in G Major Op. 54 No. 2 (Hob. III:57)

Jonathan Berger
"The Bridal Canopy"

Antonin Dvořák
String Quartet No. 13 in G Major Op. 106


St. Lawrence String Quartet
Geoff Nuttall - Violin
Scott St. John - Violin
Lesley Robertson - Viola
Christopher Costanza - Cello

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Playing the Same Game

St. Lawrence String Quartet visits Berlin

by Anicia Timberlake / Photo: Anthony Parmelee

Adding a new member to a quartet is tricky business. Especially when that quartet is the St. Lawrence, which has the amazing ability to integrate four very distinct, if not to say very different, musical personalities into a coherent and unique group sound. This is no quartet where every member plays his notes and taken together the music sounds pretty and bland. They are also not of the first-violin + backup singers breed—much to their credit, as violinist Geoff Nuttall could easily upstage any musician in the world if he put his mind to it. Rather, everybody plays their part with absolute commitment to the individual voice and the instrument as well as to the piece as an ensemble work. Solo and tutti exist at the same time, on the same instrument. In some ways, it's like baseball—nobody has the same swing or the same style, but everyone is playing the same game. So I was quite curious to hear their new addition, violinist Scott St. John. Would he be as much of a personality and yet as much of a team player as the other members of the quartet?

St. Lawrence String Quartet

Wednesday's audience certainly seemed to think so. From the moment the quartet took the stage, companionable, concentrated silence reigned in the hall. Not one cough was to be heard between the movements, even during the usually bronchitis-inducing "modern" piece. The quartet members, as well, seemed comfortable, if a little tired (Berlin being the last stop on their European tour). Comfort, with very few exceptions, was accompanied by their usual musical excitement and risk-taking.

Haydn is one of the St. Lawrence's trademarks—they do it better than any other quartet. A St. Lawrence rendition of Haydn is full of jokes. The rests are sometimes a hair too long, the pianos a touch too quiet, the subito fortes just a tad vulgar, and the result is much funnier than a piece of "serious" music has the right to be. The lively interaction between the quartet's members and their absolute involvement in each moment and gesture made the performance more of a physical romp than an intellectual exercise. Not that perfect musicianship is ever sacrificed for humor. The performance on Wednesday was raucous, yet impeccably blended and in tune. Additionally, the St. Lawrence's judicious use of (often perfectly matched) vibrato as a flavoring instead of a staple ingredient added a new textural dimension to this well-known music. Every tone in every voice was important—there was no accompaniment, just a colorful tapestry where each strand was an essential part of the whole picture. In this setting, details such as violist Lesley Robertson's luscious tone become as important as harmonies or virtuosic violin playing.

Nuttall and St. John switched seats after the first piece, a surprising but successful changeup. The Berger, which the St. Lawrence premiered earlier this year, lacked direction during the first movement, but picked up pace for the other three movements. The quartet struck an extraordinary balance between light and sustained playing, which made the third movement particularly electric. The fourth movement, which featured some gorgeous solos by cellist Chris Costanza, was electric.

As with Haydn, the quartet's performance of Dvořák focused on all the quirky little details of the piece. The opening spiccato runs were anything but decorous, and all the bouncy rhythms were satisfyingly crisp, if not to say crunchy. There was a great interplay between the melody voice and the other voices—a duet in octaves between second violin and viola in the second movement sparkled, it was so spotlessly blended. St. John continued to play first, which was mostly excellent, though sometimes he gave the impression of flying by the seat of his pants. Nuttall held himself back, maybe a little too much (though it could have been the acoustics), and Costanza and Robertson, as always, provided a lyrical underpinning that gave the piece much of its sweetness. A lovely Dvořák song followed as an encore.