St. Lawrence String Quartet @ W M C T Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Ecstasy, agony, and the triumph of expression: these are the hallmarks of two of the quartets the St. Lawrence String Quartet performed before a sold-out house this afternoon. One of these is Cesar Franck’s “D Major”, written during 1890, the last year of composer’s life: this composition reconciles in expression several of Franck’s monumental struggles.

One struggle was in the realm of the erotic. Franck’s lifetime was ruled by discipline and discretion. He worked as a church organist, a music teacher and composer who cultivated strict classical genres. At the end of this life of service and virtue, like the fictional hero of “Death In Venice”, and like the composer Janacek, Franck was consumed by a hopeless passion for a young girl. The “D Major”, said to be a record of this fatal attraction, is one of the few of Franck’s compositions that was received with favour by the public, and that, for a long while after his death, was more popular than any of Beethoven’s string quartets. Ecstasy, agony, and the triumph of expression.

Franck’s other struggle was to reconcile his Classical formal idealism with the harmonic innovations of the late Romanticism of Liszt and Wagner. This string quartet is fortunate in being able to align the monumentality of the former with the sweeping lyricism and emotional intensity of the other side of Franck’s nature. It inspired Marcel Proust to devote many pages to describing how this music captivates his characters in “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu”. Debussy and Ravel were inspired by Franck’s example to write their own string quartets.

Suffice it to say that the 50 minute recital by the St. Lawrence String Quartet transmitted the power of this fabled composition.

Robert Schumann’s “String Quartet in F Major, Op. 41, No. 2″ is similar to the Franck in that it reconciles in expression a pair of struggles involving both love and musical tradition.

Schumann was severely depressed and drank heavily during a two-month separation from his wife Clara. He found solace in contrapuntal exercises and a study of the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. He shared these studies with Clara on her keyboard when they reconciled.

There followed a burst of creativity in 1842 that yielded three string quartets. All three quartets go beyond imitation of the Viennese Masters. The progress is reflected in the more conversational tone of Schumann’s contrapuntal dialogue in which each instrument ‘has something to say’ in the total discourse.

The solos in the second movement by Scott St. John’s 2nd violin and Lesley Robertson’s viola were especially beautiful. Christopher Costanza’s cello work throughout, and his brief, vigorous solo in the third movement were especially pleasing.

Haydn’s “String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, No. 2,” (1795), is part of the composer’s response to the set of string quartets dedicated to him by Mozart in 1782-85. Geoff Nuttall’s leadership is evident in this piece where the entertaining alternations from soft, slow passages to eruptions of passionate vigour are signaled by Nuttall’s dramatic postural and heavy breathing cues.

Speaking of heavy breathing, and not to stray far from our dual theme of art and the erotic, this quartet belongs to a time in Haydn’s life when he was turning away from a very successful preoccupation with opera towards instrumental music, while enjoying his extramarital passion for Luigia Polzelli, a young, married Italian soprano.

Haydn’s music is a triumph of expression where the ecstatic is framed by humour, and his innate sense of balance transforms private agony into vigour and creativity. If there is agony in Haydn, he makes it dance.

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