Classical Concert Review: St. Lawrence String Quartet plays Beethoven, Adams, and Sibelius

It is, clearly, a crafty Beethoven remix and the ways John Adams assimilates the older composer’s language into his latest style are fascinating.

St. Lawrence String Quartet. Photo: courtesy of Concord Chamber Music Society.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

It’s been a good month if you’re a Boston-area fan of John Adams. At the beginning of March, Leila Josefowicz gave a blazing account of his “dramatic symphony” Scheherazade.2 with the Boston Symphony. Then, this past Sunday, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) brought his 2014 Second Quartet to Concord Academy for the last concert of the Concord Chamber Music Society’s current season. It shared the bill with two similarly quirky quartets, one by Beethoven and the other by Sibelius.

The Adams Second Quartet could hardly be a more different piece than Scheherazade.2. While the latter is an expansive orchestral treatise, full of angular gestures, dense harmonies, and complex rhythmic layerings, the Quartet is, if not simple Adams, then at least fairly straightforward and compact. Like much of his previous music for that ensemble (2007’s First Quartet and 2012’s Absolute Jest), it draws heavily on the example and music of Beethoven’s late period, quoting, in particular, some short phrases drawn from the op. 110 and 111 piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations. These references are frequently recognizable in and of themselves, though they often set off in wild and unpredictable directions.

Adams cast the piece in two movements which, together, last about twenty minutes. The first is almost entirely extroverted, with a strong pulse underlying its various transformations of the Beethoven excerpts. The second starts with a rather expansive elaboration of a theme from the first movement of op. 111, though things quickly ramp up and a jaunty “Energico” leads to a vigorous conclusion.

Throughout, Adams’ fluency regarding writing for the ensemble is on full display. Spiky rhythmic patterns bounce between the players. Sul ponticello articulations crop up unexpectedly. Intimations of bluegrass fiddling seem to appear out of the haze of the finale. And so forth.

Now, whether or not the Second Quartet adds up to more than the sum of its parts remains, after just one hearing, an open question.Click To Tweet

On Sunday afternoon, the SLSQ made spirited work of the piece. Its athleticism posed them no challenges: from cellist Christopher Costanza’s opening, rhythmic phrase to the cool, serene C-major final cadence, this was a performance that slipped into a groove early and never fell out of it. And, while much of the music is jaunty fun, the introspective passages – the short, questioning pauses of the first movement, and the lyrical opening of the finale chief among them – were played with warmth and tenderness.

Now, whether or not the Second Quartet adds up to more than the sum of its parts remains, after just one hearing, an open question It is, clearly, a crafty Beethoven remix and the ways Adams assimilates the older composer’s language into his latest style are fascinating. On first glance, too, it’s a highly engaging score. But, ultimately, the Quartet requires more local performances and (hopefully soon) a recording to give one a better sense of its strengths and weaknesses. Until then, it made a good first impression, if not (like Adams’ First Quartet) an overwhelming one.

Before the Adams came some “real” Beethoven, in the form of the F-major String Quartet no. 16, op. 135.

Sunday’s performance, with its clean textures, total lack of sentimentality, and brisk tempos, made the score sound as fresh and, well, strange as anything the SLSQ played all afternoon. The ensemble delicately spun out the tendril-like melodic gestures of the first movement and reveled in the earthiness (not to mention the rhythmic and metrical ambiguities) of the wild scherzo. There was devotion to spare in the third and, in the finale, slashing dissonances rubbing up, with abandon, against playful galumphing. This was, like the Adams, music and a reading full of fire and life.

So, after intermission, was Sibelius’ D-minor String Quartet (“Voces intimae”).

Again, the SLSQ dug into the music – and what strange music it often is. You might not guess that Sibelius was a violinist, to judge from the stark textures and peculiar doublings that sometimes mark its five movements. Then, again, he had such a singular way of writing for everything from the piano to the orchestra that maybe his quartet scoring shouldn’t stand out too much.

At any rate, Sunday’s reading was by turns fervent (the central slow movement brought out particularly intense playing from first violinist Geoff Nuttall and cellist Costanza), stern (in the austere fourth-movement dance), and spry (the quicksilver second movement). The finale, especially the last half, packed a bohemian punch. And many of the music’s little details, from the second movement’s dovetailing voices to the third’s syncopated thickets, the fourth’s unison second violin/viola licks, and the various instrumental pairings of the finale, were articulated with remarkable clarity. In all, it made for an invigorating capstone to a conspicuously fresh afternoon of chamber music.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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