St. Lawrence Quartet gives clarinestist Todd Palmer the strings to fly

By Manasi Vydyanath

Intriguing, refreshing, piquant, powerful…these were some of my impressions of the performance last Friday by the St. Lawrence String quartet (with Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman on violin, Lesley Robertson on viola, and Chris Costanza on cello.) They began with Joseph Haydn’s Op. 64, no. 2 in B minor, followed by Maurice Ravel’s ravishing quartet in F major and Osvaldo Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.

The most striking feature of the ensemble is their tone—arresting, individualistic and visceral—as opposed to the smoothly blended, integrated timbre that one finds in certain ensembles where the strings mingle flawlessly and meld into a single voice. The instruments here are less self-effacing, more aggressive, and retain their unique personality even during moments of total accord. They sing together rather than singing as one. This is not to say that they are not mellifluous, but merely that they attain their lyricism through different means. I would be inclined to call it euphony by democracy—with all the implications of such a process—rather than euphony by unanimity. While this effect is electrifying in some pieces, it is nervous and fragmented in others. The Ravel and the Golijov belonged to the former category; unfortunately, the Haydn fell into the latter.

The B minor quartet is the second in a suite of six pieces comprising Haydn’s Op. 64. It was written in 1790 and is often overshadowed by its more famous counterparts like the Op. 64 no. 1, 6 and 5 (“The Lark,” played by the Pacifica quartet on January 30). It is a beautiful work with quintessentially Haydn-esque juxtapositions of merriment and power. The textures call for a lightness, clarity, and timbral fusion. This is precisely where the St. Lawrence quartet seemed slightly out of depth. They gave a vigorous, full-blooded reading that somehow missed the point. It seemed to work dramatically but not necessarily artistically. For instance, the melody line in the first movement was suffused with trills, flourishes and turns—the ensemble gave these excessive importance, playing them far too forcefully until they hindered the colloquy rather than enhancing it. The second violin and cello did not coalesce to support the first violin; each seemed to want to claim its own part. The result was rusty and somewhat strained.

Something similar occurred with the second movement; each part was individually impeccable but the parts did not form a coherent whole. The intimacy and lyrical simplicity did not shine through. The minuet/trio, with its bold rhythms, suffered from a different malaise—exaggeration. After a few minutes, one felt as though the ensemble were physically kicking the sforzandi in an effort to extract every last drop of drama. The last movement was better, but the delightful conclusion (reminiscent of Saki’s endings in his Chronicles of Clovis) that could have been brought out by nonchalance was made predictable by the nervous anticipation that preceded it. Throughout the piece, Haydn employs fermatas for dramatic effect. These were overdone, becoming affectations instead of genuine moments of anticipation.

The very qualities that made the Haydn quartet ineffective made the Ravel piece absolutely breathtaking. Their tone seemed peculiarly suited to it, and they performed with energy, drive, and a dramatic urgency that made most other performances pale into insignificance. The quartet is a stormy, turbulent and intensely descriptive work, with sharply defined melodic ideas under the framework of classically derived structure (a hallmark of Ravel’s musical idiom). It commences with a descending, undulating subject that is to be used as the main melodic motif for all four ensuing movements. I find the first movement to be the most “Debussian” in style, filled with “clouds, waves, aquariums, water-sprites, and nocturnal scents” (in the words of Jean Cocteau). It is usually executed as such, but the individualistic, particular tone and tense, highly structured dramatic reading of the St. Lawrence quartet made it distinctively “Ravellian.”

The quartet imbued it not only with mysterious and scintillating tints, but with a superb clarity and a mesmeric power that culled its impetus from the structure upon which it was based. The second movement is structured around whirls of pizzicati, punctuating a lilting, almost mocking melody. This is a beautiful example of thematic morphism—the ethereal motif used in the first movement is transformed into something positively satyr-like. The quartet performed it at a slightly faster tempo than is usual, making the music literally flicker with tongues of flame.

The third movement commences with a sinister version of the main motif, interspersed with one of the most chilling laughs in the history of the string quartet. The first violin and then the lower strings emit a nervous, hysterical tremolando, a convulsive laugh by someone on the very brink of psychosis (but retaining just enough sanity to see the irony of his own position). Very few performances manage to get the effect precisely right. This one did. The peals of mirth were utterly nightmarish. The quartet leaped into the last movement at a fast tempo, creating a dark, surging, turbulent finale. Even the modicum of restraint in the last movement is eliminated, and what remains is a desperate, beautiful descent into chaos. The mood is strangely abandoned, as if the person is well aware of his situation and almost anticipates his spiraling delusion.

The last two movements were strongly evocative of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. The protagonist steadily degenerates into tangled webs of desire, delusion and frustration, literally ruining everything she touches. This culminates in an almost fiercely joyous suicide (which she views as liberation from the untenable life she’s leading). If the piece is a haunting portrayal of a doomed search for freedom, individuality, and heroism, the two final movements of the string quartet seem to represent a philosophical journey. The last, triumphant crescendo and chord resemble a gunshot echoing from the room—or one of the characters giving a strangled cry of stark disbelief.

The last piece, Golijov’s Prayers and Dreams of Isaac the Blind, premiered in 1994 with the Cleveland quartet and Giorda Feidman on clarinet. It consists of a prelude, three movements, and a postlude. It is a heroic, moving piece strongly based around the klezmer tradition. Isaac the Blind was a thirteenth century Provençal Kabbalist rabbi who believed that everything takes place in the universe as a result of sounds and combinations of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Golijov uses this as a point de depart, employing specific Hebraic prayers as thematic material upon which to construct the five movements of his piece.

Clarinet soloist Todd Palmer joined the St. Lawrence string quartet for this piece, and gave a brilliant rendition of his demanding part. The clarinet often works in bold relief to the textures insinuated by the string—suggesting, instigating, provoking, dictating, admonishing, directing, and leading the ensemble—and Palmer’s was no exception.

The prelude commences with a recitative-like atmosphere over which the violin etches a haunting prayer, a supplication exquisite in its very simplicity. The second movement incorporates traditional chant rhythms, building up to a soaring, declaiming clarinet part that provokes a similar outburst on the part of the quartet. It works itself into a frenzy and has to be re-integrated by the clarinet in a truly chilling, prophetic voice. (Todd Palmer handled this part with awe-inspiring fire and fury.) The third movement explores traditional dance melodies, building them from ghostly fragments into a wild, exhilarating terpsichorean display. The clarinet takes on very speech-like inflections and exhorts the quartet into ever-greater heights of fervour. Finally, the postlude—essentially a conclusion and resolution of the prayer initiated by the first movement—is strange and evocative. The ensemble performed this piece superbly, bringing out its rage, pathos, and surging ecstasy. Intriguing, refreshing, piquant, powerful…I stand by my first impressions.