St Lawrence String Quartet, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews
St Lawrence String Quartet, Wigmore Hall
St Lawrence String Quartet, Wigmore Hall
Haydn outstrips John Adams for the shock of the new
John Adams, let's face it, was the reason many of us came to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Their performances and recordings as dedicatees of his labyrinthine First String Quartet and Absolute Jest, in which the four players function as soloist with orchestra, led to high hopes for the UK premiere of a second quartet. As it turned out, the yield was smaller beer than expected. What really hit home, for those of us who don't spend as much time as we should with the first and most varied quartet canon in the literature, was an early Haydn masterpiece.
Not the curtainraiser, Op. 20 No. 1, which started with what seemed like a sledgehammer style to crack a piquant nut before the St. Lawrences justified the approach in the more adventurously written third and fourth movements, but its successor in terms of numbering. Haydn's quartets rarely get the concentrated position they deserve at the end of concerts, but if any of them works best that way, it's the early C major experiment with its wild, fractured "Capriccio" Adagio and the playful cleverness of its two-thirds sotto voce fugal finale.
Haydn's lovely, smooth opening with the cello taking the top line of the lower three instruments belies what's to come in all but the novelty of its grouping (there were further elegant games of this sort in the well-earned encore, the slow movement from Op. 20 No. 5, first violin Geoff Nuttall teasing us with a promised entry which was in fact taken by second Owen Dalby, with elaborations). Who could have anticipated the Sturm und Drang unisons of the C minor Adagio, the trilling, mournful melody which follows and the sudden shafts of sunlight, none of them resolved before the Minuet sidles in?
The St. Lawrences' electric sense of drama, led by Nuttall with his highly-strung solos, made this a surprisingly strong successor in the second half to Janáček's First, "Kreutzer Sonata", Quartet, based – somewhat enigmatically – on Tolstoy's novella about murderous jealousy. If the brief suavity which settles after the highly-charged opening could have been gilded with greater sophistication, none of the sul ponticello (close-to-the-bridge) or spluttering pizzicato attacks missed their mark, culminating in a stupendous life-and-death drama in the finale.
What, though, to make of Adams's String Quartet No. 2? The spell of Beethoven which pulsed its way through Absolute Jest in quotations and rhythmic pulsings seems to be going through the hangover stage here. Adams has opened out his terms of reference to the Op. 110 A major Piano Sonata and a finale game with a brief "Diabelli" Variation, but this time he's too reliant on the dactylic rhythm which powers the orchestral work (Ninth Symphony scherzo or a feature of the Seventh, according to taste).
The screwing-up of harmonies and fragments yields diminishing returns, and though the St Lawrences delivered with manic energy when appropriate, there seemed little enough matter from the heart here. Let's say that this work stands in relation to its brilliant predecessor as Scheherazade.2 does to the first Violin Concerto: both sequels are eked-out games, while the "originals" remain untarnished as Adams at his adventurous best. It's simply a question of wanting to return and discover more. With the First Quartet, for me, that will always be the case; with the second, not so much.
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