ST.LAWRENCE STRING QUARTET with DAVID FINCKEL and WU HAN reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

November 29, 2006

with David Finckel and Wu Han
Jane Mallett Theatre

The evening’s programme, received with wild enthusiasm, was chosen because of a child.

The SLSQ’s violinist Geoff Nuttal stayed home for the birth of his first child, so the Quartet started off as a trio with Erno Dohnanyi’s “Serenade in C, Op.10”, featuring the group’s newest member, Scott St. John. A duo followed with special guests, the Emerson Quartet’s cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, collaborating in a spectacular performance of the “Sonata in D Minor, for cello and piano, Op 40”, by Dmitri Shostakovich. The quartet configuration was a warm one, with the viola of Lesley Robertson, and David Finckel doubling the SLSQ’s cellist Chris Costanza, in Anton Arensky’s all too rarely performed “String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 35.”

Inspiration came to Dohnanyi naturally, according to the second of his three wives. His “Serenade” (1902) written on the threshold of his first maturity, reveals an inventive fertility and a wealth of ideas. The music is lyrical and vivacious, ornamented with that wry Hungarian sense of humour. Formally, it relies on the Romantic heritage, and as in the case of Brahms, reaches back to 18th century classical forms.

Tonally centred, the “Serenade” is a rich weave of motivic strands and chromatic excursions. The St. Lawrence trio’s playing was dramatic, heightening the frequent abrupt shifts of tempo, the sudden transitions between legato and staccato passages. The second movement offered an affecting interplay between Scott St. John’s long, dense, lyrical violin and Costanza’s pizzicato bass line. The cross harmonies and dramatic gypsy theme of the Rondo (Finale) were strong.

The Shostakovich “Cello Sonata” of 1934 belongs to the period when the composer was writing music considered conservative in its harmonics and classical in form. Op. 40 came to be known in Soviet circles as a “model for the new, socially acceptable type of expression.” Maybe. Nevertheless, if Stalin’s artsocrats had heard the interpretation David Finckel and Wu Han offered they might have raised their heavy hand to strike him down.

To Shostakovich’s gravely lyrical opening theme of the first movement, Finckel brings exceptional force, and Wu Han dramatic passion. In the concluding largo, the creepy catwalk piano and the cello moving slowly like an assailant on the prowl have a kind of parodic effect more familiar in the post “Lady Macbeth” works. The boisterous second movement was so exciting it left the audience, literally, gasping for breath.

During the intensely personal third movement and the cello’s gorgeous cantilena, the audience’s concentration was palpable. The allegro rondo-finale was a riot, a runaway stagecoach, a keystone cop-chase, a Katchaturian “Sabre Dance”, Wu Han smiling above her high stepping keys, Finckel sawing away at the fiendishly difficult cello part, and everyone having fun.

Anton Arensky’s 2nd String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 35, written to honour the late Tchaikovsky, is scored darkly for two cellos, viola and violin. It opens on a dirge-like theme by the cellos who pass it to the viola for a full bodied and energetic treatment. The second movement, variations on a song by Tchaikovsky, is stated simply and goes straight to the heart. It is elaborated by each instrument in turn, notably Finckel’s plucked strings, through impressively melodic and fluent up-tempo variations, that return eventually to the dirge like theme. The third movement opens darkly, develops a vigorous fugue on Russian themes reminiscent of Mussorgsky and Arensky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, and moves to an energetic and celebratory conclusion.

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