Never hold back – this would serve well as a motto for the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The quartet has been concertizing for over two decades and has seen two member changes, but the intensity and bravery with which they approach music-making has not waned in the slightest. Their brand of performing is not for the faint of heart, and their performance at the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall on February 13th was no exception, to the delight of this reviewer.

St Lawrence String Quartet
St Lawrence String Quartet

Haydn’s String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 no. 2 (‘Fifths’) began the program, with violinist Geoff Nuttall sitting in first chair and violinist Scott St. John taking second chair. These violinists switch positions (Mr. St. John played first chair for the other two pieces on the program), and although this is not the norm in the string quartet world, it adds another dimension of vitality to the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Mr. Nuttall and Mr. St. John, both exceptionally strong and passionate players, bring full intensity to whichever chair they are sitting in at the moment, which gave this listener the feeling that the force of music making was coming from all sides of the quartet. In ‘Fifths’, one could see that Mr. Nuttall truly adores playing Haydn quartets. Haydn’s harmonic jokes, turns of phrase, and sarcasms were brought vividly to life in the quirky devil-may-care playing of Mr. Nuttall, who never restrained any part of himself, even if at times he was on the verge of falling out of his chair. And why should he not play in this manner? Haydn took great pleasure in composing the unexpected, the obtuse, the shocking; why shouldn’t a performance bring listeners, and for that matter performers, to the edge of their seats?

Occupying the central position on the program was Martinů’s String Quartet no. 5. This quartet was written by a married man (Martinů) pining over a woman who was not his wife (Vítězslava Kaprálová, Martinů’s student), and the original score was suppressed by Martinů for two decades partially due to the intimate notes it contained concerning his relationship with Kaprálová. Driving rhythms dominate many movements of this quartet, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet propelled these rhythms with an energy that never diminished. This quartet also features more than one beautiful viola solo, and during these solos violist Lesley Robertson emerged from the ensemble to showcase her full, round tone. The last movement, in spite of the driving nature of much of the rest of the quartet, seemed to open as if dragging its heels, brooding over themes from earlier movements. It ended tragically, lunging to a halt, leaving listeners in a state of melancholy.

Finishing the program was Dvořák’s String Quartet in A flat, Op. 105. A few years ago the St. Lawrence String Quartet recorded Dvořák’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 106, and in many ways Op. 105 and Op. 106 can be seen as a pair. Completed after Dvořák returned to Bohemia after a long stay in the United States, Op. 105 abounds with the joy of homecoming. Here the St. Lawrence String Quartet produced a sound truly befitting of Dvořák: lush, round, with deep strong colours. There was much contrast in the playing, evoking a beautifully diverse Bohemian landscape: sky, mountains, trees, rivers, boulders. One could almost smell the greenery in spite of the snow still on the ground outside Walter Hall. There were moments of extreme tenderness in this performance, especially in the third movement. During this movement, there were moments when the quartet withdrew their sound to nothing more than a whisper, as if what they were trying to say was too pure and delicate to utter in full voice. Then suddenly, a sobering pulsation originating in the cello was heard. The whisper became louder, became threatening, and the quartet transformed itself. The effect of this transformation was heart-wrenching. In the last movement of the quartet, feelings of joy returned, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet fully embraced this emotion.

The musicians took such pleasure in performing this piece, which at its core is so human. And why not take pleasure? Perhaps this is what music-making is all about.