Fewer contortions, more intensity

St. Lawrence Quartet at the Perelman

5 minute read
A few selections from the standard classical repertory— most of them chamber works— are perpetually enshrined in the most sacred wing of my personal Music Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly, they tend to be works my music-loving (but non-musician) parents especially revered— works in which I immersed myself hour after hour as a teenager. They're so deeply embedded in my musical identity that I very rarely feel the need to actually listen to them anymore.

If I had to select only one work from this core group (which includes Schubert's C major String Quintet, Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio, and a few others), my choice would be Mozart's darkly lyrical G minor String Quintet, K. 516. (For a representative sound clip, see my 2006 BSR article, "What Was Mozart Thinking?"

A few years ago, it occurred to me that this was the only work on my Holiest of the Holy list that I'd never heard performed in concert. Although it never bothered me when I was young that I knew the Budapest String Quartet only through their recordings, and although I can't recall ever hearing a live performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and feel no particular need to do so now, for some reason I began feeling an urgent need to be present at a performance of K. 516.

Unfortunately, the Mozart String Quintets (which add a viola to the standard string quartet), and especially the G minor Quintet, aren't played very often. I changed my travel plans a few seasons ago to attend an advertised performance by the local chamber group 1807 and Friends, but K. 516 was replaced by something else by Mozart at the last minute.

Last-minute luck

So I felt especially fortunate when I was able to score a pair of last-minute tickets to the St. Lawrence Quartet's recent sold-out performance at the Perelman Theater, a concert that included, along with my Mozart, the Beethoven C minor String Quartet from Op. 18 and the 1992 Yiddishbbuk (sic) by the contemporary Argentinean composer Oswaldo Golijov.

Although I really should know better by now, I'm still getting accustomed to the idea that it's been decades since the Budapest Quartet was the paradigm of what a string quartet should be: four formally dressed men playing classical repertory with prim reverential decorum. In fact, the obvious model for the St. Lawrence is the liberated standard set by the Kronos Quartet more than 30 years ago: eclectically dressed men and women who love to engage their audiences and who play all sorts of repertory, including the classical standards, with unbridled enthusiasm and physicality.

Even by this modern standard, the St. Lawrence is extreme. Here is a YouTube clip of them playing the Scherzo from Beethoven's String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130. (The St. Lawrence has not, apparently, produced any high-quality on-line videos.) If you agree with the first comment accompanying this clip ("Played well, but too much distracting physical movement")— and I must say this is a maniacally over-the-top performance— then you would have been outraged by their performance at the Perelman, especially by their rendition of Beethoven's Op. 18, No. 4.

Den mother

In this performance, the only staid member of the group was the group's founder (and, one cannot help imagining, den mother), violist Lesley Robertson. The three guys played like hyperactive teenagers, but none so much as Geoff Nuttall, the second violinist, whose musical exuberance often drove him to kick both feet in the air and who often seemed to be using his face to do a Marcel Marceau shtick illustrating the music while he played it.

Nevertheless, the quartet played beautifully, with both power and finesse, finding both the passion and wit in Beethoven's Haydnesque early style.

Golijov's Yiddishbbuk is a fierce dissonant invocation of a fragmentary lost work of Franz Kafka"“ in Kafka's words (from the program notes), "No one sings as purely as those who are in the deepest hell"— and the St. Lawrence appropriately tore into it like a pack of blood-crazed sharks.

As it turns out, Nuttall is the group's charming and unpretentious spokesman. After hearing him speak before the Golijov, I was much more willing to put up with his shenanigans. Nevertheless, by the intermission I was still worried that his exhibitionist streak might hijack the Mozart.

Subdued by Mozart

I'm happy to report that such was not the case. Perhaps it was the presence of violist Michael Tree, one of the founding members of the Guaneri Quartet (in 1964) and now in his mid-70s. Perhaps Nuttall and his cohorts know that it's inappropriate to carry on while playing Mozart, even this Mozart. Whatever the reason, the quartet became physically more subdued, if not exactly calm (Nuttall, now on first violin, still tried to use his eyebrows as expressively as he used his bow) and delivered a fine performance of Mozart's masterpiece.

Fine, but not transcendent. To my ears, if there was a flaw in the St. Lawrence's performance of K. 516, it was, ironically, a subtle lack of intensity, a cumulative lack of dynamic contrast. And the last movement seemed to stagger just a little bit coming down the homestretch"“ a few intonation problems here and there"“ perhaps the price of all that expended physical energy.

But I'm being picky, and I'm perfectly willing to admit that probably no performance of this work would please me entirely. Mission accomplished. Now I can put the G minor Quintet back in its special niche in my musical psyche and move on.

What, When, Where

St. Lawrence String Quartet: Music of Beethoven, Golijov, and Mozart. February 11, 2011 at Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. Presented by Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. (215) 569-8080 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation