St. Lawrence Quartet shines at refurbished Wolf Trap with Haydn and Mozart

Sat Feb 02, 2019 at 12:38 pm

The St. Lawrence String Quartet performed Friday night at the Barns at Wolf Trap. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Wolf Trap has a new look this season. The Barns, the 18th-century farm buildings brought from New York as a rustic concert venue, have received a substantial facelift, from a cheery red exterior to a reconfigured entry and dining space. To celebrate, pianist Wu Han has put together a season celebrating Vienna, Austria, in Vienna, Virginia, for her first season as Wolf Trap’s artistic adviser. The series continued Friday night with a concert by the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

The Canadian quartet, most celebrated for playing music by living composers, has found its way back to another specialty, the Haydn quartets. A new recording of the composer’s op. 20 set is in the works, and this concert opened with the String Quartet in C Major, Op. 33, no. 3, nicknamed “The Bird.”

In Haydn the group’s sound was akin to a historical instrument ensemble in some ways. The musicians minimized vibrato, which along with the restricted volume and warmly balanced tone produced something like the sound of gut strings. Rather than a metronomic quickness, though, the group applied rubato to add some unpredictability and humor to their interpretation, turning corners with precision and unanimity.

Each movement was limned with a palette of different tone colors, beginning with a shining first movement enlivened by the avian chirps and flutters that earned the piece its moniker. The second movement was a sort of muted whisper, all four instruments evenly matched. In contrast the brighter Trio featured just the two violinists, co-founder Geoff Nuttall and the newest quartet member Owen Dalby.

The slow movement was warm, with engaging variations, and the Finale spirited, crisp in articulation and fleet in tempo. The quartet toyed with audience expectations in the silences leading to returns of the rondo theme, allowing the movement to chug actively to its conclusion, like a filmstrip coming off its spool with a clatter.

Nuttall’s high-energy spoken introduction to Mozart’s String Quartet No. 15, the second of the composer’s “Haydn Quartets,” helped situate this music in the context of Mozart’s admiration for his older colleague. The musicians amped up the excitement in this piece, with a brisk tempo for the first movement, adding pleasing variety with a softer approach on the repeat of the exposition. Slackening and quickening of the pace helped mark the sectional divisions of the slow movement.

Nuttall excelled on the Lombard rhythms in the sweet, triadic melody of the D major Trio in the third movement, accompanied gracefully by his colleagues on harp-like plucked chords. Violist Lesley Robertson came to the fore in the delicate, speedy Finale. As Nuttall and the musicians showed with an apt musical demonstration during his introduction, the movement is a specific tribute to a similar Haydn quartet movement.

The musicians rounded out this pleasing portrait of the Viennese string quartet with the String Quartet No. 2 of Brahms, Op. 51, no. 2. The same restraint from the classical part of the program served this often moody music just as well for the most part. In the development section of the first movement, greater force seemed necessary, but Nuttall didn’t always land notes at the top of the E string with absolute accuracy.

Cellist Christopher Costanza shone in his extended solo in the second movement, a burnished tone given prominence by his colleagues, always listening for each other and cooperating in creating a cohesive ensemble. Although the Brahms was not quite as accomplished as what had come before, the third movement proved a highlight, a gloomy, heartfelt Menuetto contrasted with a rapid, precise Trio.

The Finale, enlivened by the composer’s characteristic shifts between duple and triple rhythms, capped an evening of accomplished and intimate music-making. The warmth of sound almost made one forget the cold and snow waiting outside.

Wu Han and colleagues perform an evening of chamber music by Schubert 7:30 p.m. February 22.; 703-255-1900.

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