Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: St. Lawrence Quartet

Nov. 15, Virginia Commonwealth University

If I were to hear a recording of the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s performances of Haydn and Beethoven from this Rennolds Concerts program, I would probably say, “Holy moly, that’s raw!”

Violinists Geoff Nuttall and Mark Fewer, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza italicized just about every tonal, technical and expressive gesture in Haydn’s “Emperor” (Op. 76, No. 3) and Beethoven’s third “Razumovsky” (Op. 59, No. 3) quartets. Slashing accents; brisk, going on headlong, tempos; high-relief voicings of individual string parts; turbulent phrasing; flourishes and climaxes almost spinning out of control – anything and everything, it seemed, to convey passion, excitement and immersion in the music.

Nuttall conveyed that engagement physically, as well, writhing and dancing at the edge of his seat through much of the concert. The lanky violinist’s movements and facial expressions at times looked like Lyle Lovett channeling Jim Carrey. That, plus the tone of his onstage comments, plus the hipster silver shoes, made it clear that Nuttall is determined to blow away the stuffy stereotypes of chamber music. Mission accomplished.

This wasn’t a recording, but a concert performance, and in such a one-off experience most of the St. Lawrence’s excesses proved persuasive, even captivating.

More so in the Beethoven than in the Haydn: The former is full of high tension, stormy outbursts and unsettled calms, concluding in a famously frenzied fugue; the latter expresses its passions with less overt volatility, and with soulful nobility in the “Emperor’s Hymn” variations of its slow movement.

Those qualities, missing in the “Emperor,” came out gratifyingly in the concert’s encore, the slow movement from Haydn’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 20, No. 1.

The ensemble settled down, physically and expressively, in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Qohelet,” which the Argentine-born composer wrote for the St. Lawrence Quartet in 2011.

According to Golijov, this two-movement work was “inspired by some of the teachings and poetic images in Ecclesiastes.” The piece is largely meditative, built of layered, repetitive figures; like most such music, it either insinuates itself into the listener’s consciousness or seems to meander uneventfully toward an innocuous destination. The quartet performed with intense concentration and commanding quiet.

If this evening was representative of the way the St. Lawrence presents itself and makes music, then the group has joined the ranks of classical performers whose artistry is unparalleled but often untidy. Distinguished company, to be sure – the likes of Cortot, Mengelberg, Elman, Casals, Furtwängler, Callas and Bernstein; but you don’t really get what they’re about unless you see and hear them live.