The string quartet is a peculiar beast in the classical music world. It takes a dash of talent, a sprinkling of luck, and a lot of social skills to make it in a professional, full-time string quartet. Many quartets are plagued with internal conflicts and member changes; however, the Lafayette Quartet seems to have defied the statistics in this category, almost miraculously. The four women who took the stage the evening of January 19th at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto are the same four women who founded the group 25 years ago. They are the only all-female ensemble in the world to have achieved this longevity and consistency, and from the moment they walked on stage their love of the music, as well as their camaraderie, was palpable.

Lafayette String Quartet, © Frances Litman
Lafayette String Quartet,
© Frances Litman

Their program featured works by Hugo Wolf, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Johannes Brahms, all standards of the quartet literature. Wolf’s Italian Serenade is a wonderful program starter. This playful one-movement work, according to musicologist Eric Sams, recounts the story of a violinist leaving home to find fame and fortune, a story borrowed from a novella by Eichendorff called From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing. Astonishingly written in only 3 days, one can hear humour and irony in this piece, coupled with a sort of sweetness and naïveté that the Lafayette Quartet captured well with their sugary group sound. The charismatic first violinist Ann Elliott-Goldschmid fluttered and laughed with her playing, as if she was the violinist from the novella gallivanting across the country-side, making trouble and delighting in chance encounters.

In Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2 in A, Op. 68, the audience saw a different side of the Lafayette Quartet. This four-movement work, also written in a relatively short time period of 19 days, was completed in 1944 at the end of the Second World War. However, the piece evokes sounds of the countryside rather than the battlefront: fittingly so, since while writing it Shostakovich was spending time at a state-run country retreat with other composers. The piece opens with a folk-like melody in the first violin set against earthy drones in the lower voices. Here, we heard a quartet sound with edge and angularity; the carefree violinist was appropriately nowhere to be found. Notable were the recitative-like solos from the first violinist in the second movement. Ms. Elliott-Goldschmid showed her versatility by playing each solo with a different mood as the music demanded. For the last two movements – an agitated waltz and a theme and variations respectively – the quartet took the audience on a journey from the playground, to the graveyard, to the stadium, with their sound and energy.

Finishing the program was Brahms’ Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 no. 1. Unlike the first two pieces on the program, this one was laboured over intensely for years, many sketches discarded by the composer for fear that it would not live up to the string quartets of the great master Beethoven. However, in spite of Brahms’ insecurities, today his three string quartets are widely loved and embraced by musicians and audiences alike. The Lafayette Quartet showcased a fullness of sound well suiting the voice of this composer. The broad lines were especially appropriate in the gorgeously lush second movement. It is difficult to find a more romantic and moving melody than the one written here by Brahms. Overall the quartet’s approach to this work was singing and luxurious, especially in the last movement, which was filled with a pleading sort of passion that tugged at the sympathies of the audience.

While a variety of colours and sound worlds were produced during this concert, the quartet always spoke with one intention, perhaps attributable to their 25 years together, over which time they have developed a voice that is distinctly theirs. The audience seemed to enjoy them greatly, even engaging in banter with them as they prepared their music, as if quartet and audience were old friends coming together to tell and hear stories. After 25 years, the Lafayette Quartet still has much to say.

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