Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Strung out

The St. Lawrence Quartet: Lesley Robertson, Christopher Costanza, Geoff Nuttall, and Scott St. John. (Photo by Anthony Parmelee.)

The recent St. Lawrence Quartet concert at Jordan Hall (sponsored by the good folks at Celebrity Series) proved surprising in more ways than one. Probably the first surprise, to those not in the know, was that the quartet has been playing musical chairs in the last year or two, and only founding members Geoff Nuttall and Lesley Robertson are still with the group. A second surprise, however, was that Nuttall, widely perceived as leading the quartet's musical profile, would be "rotating" to second chair. But the third surprise was that only the second half of the concert focused on the St. Lawrence String Quartet at all. The first half featured soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, accompanied by her husband, Kevin Murphy, in a somewhat uneven program of art song which nevertheless yielded the concert's fourth surprise: a pretty wonderful premiere, Roberto Sierra's "Songs from the Disapora."

Ms. Murphy boasts a richly honeyed soprano which she seems able to tinge with either sun or earth; but her first offering, Ernest Chausson's limpidly doomed "Chanson Perpétuelle," suited neither the warmth of her voice nor the essential optimism of her presence. She was more at home in a set of Schubert lieder, loosening up delightfully for "Sweethearts of All Kinds," and then imbuing "Litany for the Feast of All Souls" with a genuine prayerfulness, although her effects were undermined by her husband's indifferent accompaniment. He, too, came alive, however, when joined by the quartet for Sierra's "Diaspora," a song cycle based on textual and musical fragments from the Sephardic expulsion from Spain (the Sephardic Jews were banished by Fernando and Isabella in 1492). Sierra's 'reconstruction' nearly overflows with haunting ornament, and its melodies all but bleed with melancholic gypsy atmosphere; indeed, "Diaspora" pretty much leaves its obvious competition, Golijov's bloated, pop-ified "Ayre," in the Spanish dust. If the piece doesn't always fully satisfy, however, it's because its lyrics are too fragmentary - the composer might have "reconstructed" them a bit, too.

The concert's mood, of course, then took a hairpin turn as the St. Lawrence took the stage solo for Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 - the one appended by the famously savage and dissonant "Grosse Fugue," here played in full. The fugue, as Ludwig van enthusiasts all know, was far too edgy for audiences of its day; while now, of course, its forward-looking fury has become something of a modernist cliché. As first violin, Scott St. John perhaps lacked Nuttall's personal "hottie" charisma, but he was more than up to the demands of the piece, which he practically attacked (so much so that cellist Christopher Costanza seemed slightly startled by his volatility). Throughout, the quartet's playing was intense but clean, although most marked by depth of color in the short Presto passage. Intriguingly, the St. Lawrence (or at least St. John) seemed to be making the case that the fierce Grosse Fugue is, indeed, separable from the rest of the quartet; they definitely found a mournful equilibrium in its penultimate movement. The crowd was in no mood to quibble over interpretation, of course; they'd come to hear the St. Lawrence Quartet play a string quartet, and were very happy when they finally heard one.

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