Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Music Toronto Presents
St. Lawrence String Quartet
David Finckel and Wu Han
Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The performance of Prokofiev’s “Sonata for Cello” by David Finckel and Wu Han was outstanding. They sailed through the space of the “Sonata” maintaining a perfect marriage of pitch, timbre, tone, and time that left the audience exhilarated and rippling with humour.

Finckel’s deep opening solo cello tone wowed. Wu Han’s succeeding piano theme, nice and slow, with a soft, light touch, led into a strong cello pizzicato and a thick toned bowed melody. Piano and cello joined in a unison passage tonally aligned in both high and low pitches. This first ‘Andante grave’ picked up velocity in the second theme, a kind of Bachian figure that swirled playfully into a melody quite Romantic, contrasting the cello’s organ tones and the piano’s crystal chimes.

The second movement’s dancey piano theme reminds that a late Prokofiev motif can be as vividly alive with personality as the tunes from “Peter and the Wolf” he’d written thirteen years earlier, before enduring two crushing state sponsored denunciations for ‘formalism’. This movement and the ‘Allegro’ that followed, are energetic, romantic, funny, and as performed, ornamented with a sense of intimate communication. What we hear in this collaboration is totally assured playing.

Shostakovich wrote his ‘String Quintet in G Minor, Op. 97” a few years following his first rebuke for composing outside the state/public accepted standards of what music was supposed to be. Wu Han joined the St. Lawrence String Quartet, opening the ‘Prelude’ movement with a harmonious passage in counterpoint conversation with Lesley Robertson’s viola. Enter Geoff Nuttal’s violin, enter Christopher Costanza’s cello, enter Scott St. John, and a loud, energetic, ensemble, high contrast passage swells and subsides into a sleepy cello lullaby that develops the second movement ‘Fugue’. The fugal writing reflects both Bach and Beethoven. Shostakovich’s melodic penchant is Russian Romantic folk-inspired. Wu Han’s piano sings solo, the voice of the individual in the string collective: a metaphor of the composer’s Stalin-survival strategy.

The ‘Scherzo’ is a manic, collective, gypsy stomp of glassy piano and gossipy strings edged with the composer’s signature acidulous humour. The ‘Intermezzo’ walks a sad ruminative melody along a cello bass-line. Piano and first violin keen low and high creating an eerie space into which the strings pour the tears of a people. The St. Lawrence’s playing of the ‘Finale’ tones down the expected ‘here come the clowns’ mood so loved by Soviet crowds back in the day, substituting a mood of genuine ‘pastoral’—a blend of nostalgia and satire—a slightly discordant note that questions the present order.

Order of any kind is dissolved and reconstituted by R. Murray Schafer’s “String Quartet No. 3 (1981)”. The empty stage goes dark and remains so for some time. As the lights dim up, Costanza and his cello solo centre-stage doubling an A that goes out of tune: various unpleasant, squeaky, scratchy, sirenic, klaxonic sounds slide around the space. Offstage, Nuttal’s first violin wails and enters from the back of the house. Viola enters stage right. St. John enters the house rear right also playing through to the stage. The movement is marked ‘slowly but with great passion.’

Then the St. Lawrence String Quartet goes barking mad. As if performing the “Balinese Ramayana Monkey Chant” they simultaneously saw away ‘energetico’, shouting and barking repetitive, disjunct sonorities that gradually reveal a method in the madness as the music morphs into something a bit closer to Orff’s “Carmina Burana”. The third movement, is, as it is marked, ‘Slow; calm; mystical’. Ghostly sonorities, unison lazy fly buzz, drone and slide: very Zen and chamomile music that feels like it could levitate you and let you float away.

First violin rises to his feet doing a New Orleans funeral march step. As he fades away into the wings, the three remaining strings drone and hunched over their instruments, freeze to stone. A very successful performance to judge by the happy extraverted energy of the audience in the lobby.

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