Two string quartets: St Lawrence and New Zealand

String Quartet in F, Op 77 No 2 (Haydn); John Adams’s String Quartet; Octet in E flat, Op 20 (Mendelssohn)  

Saint Lawrence String Quartet and the New Zealand String Quartet:

Town Hall, Friday evening 16 October 2009  

This final concert in the 2009 season of Chamber Music New Zealand, was a brilliant ending to the year; and General Manager Euan Murdoch announced the 2010 season, CMNZ’s 60th anniversary year which opens with a concert in the International Festival next March from the great Borodin String Quartet.

The first half belonged to the St Lawrence Quartet, from Canada.

The Quartet in F was the last Haydn completed and though it’s not as familiar as several of those in the immediately preceding sets, it is highly original in character, and in this remarkable performance exhibited qualities that even Haydn might have been surprised by. I suspect that the tonal variety, the pungent expressiveness and the compulsive momentum might have been unusual around 1800. But today, such extremely vivid, and rhythmically and dynamically varied interpretations are almost essential for musicians who want to distinguish themselves from the rank and file.

Certainly, Haydn invites such performance through his pains to avoid the expected, the cliché, the routine, so that the composer’s wit and intelligence found ideal interpreters in these players determined to bring the piece to life in a thoroughly arresting way.

John Adams has gained fame chiefly in the opera house and secondarily the concert hall: he has not written much chamber music. His string quartet, written for the St Lawrence, and first performed in New York in January, shows a gift that will surely inspire other similar commissions. One is impressed by the fecundity of his invention, its profusion and variety and his structural skill in manipulating it; and even more overwhelmed by the exuberance and phenomenal brilliance of the performance that will set a benchmark hard to equal.

Adams’s work was evidence of his genius for creating a substantial and compelling work that maintained its momentum through many moods, marvellously captured by these players.

Adams has moved far beyond ‘minimalist’ style of his early years; he belongs to no particular school and this work was simply evidence of Adams’s individuality and his flair for creating a substantial and compelling work that maintained its momentum through its huge vitality and variety that the quartet .

The New Zealand String Quartet joined the Canadians for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet, possibly the most astonishing creation by any composer in his teens. The arrangement of the parts meant that the St Lawrence Quartet, and especially their first violinist, Geoff Nuttall, rather dominated both by the energy and endless tonal variety of his first violin part, and by his total physical involvement; leg-work that even Michael Jackson might have envied.

The other members of the St Lawrence quartet and the New Zealanders displayed comparable mastery if less physically conspicuous.

The fast movements were both spectacular in their ever-changing rhythmic and dynamic expressiveness; it was a revelatory experience, reinforcing the octet’s place as a singular masterpiece. 

(an extended version of the review printed by The Dominion Post on 20 October)




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