The St. Lawrence String Quartet opened this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival with a really interesting programme. They kicked off with the Haydn String Quartet No. 25 in C Major. This very much belied the idea that Haydn is a skilful but not especially inventive composer. It’s full of invention; especially rhythmic and really suited the intensely physical style of the St. Lawrences; especially the hyperkinetic first violin, Geoff Nuttall, who also contributed a rather extraordinary pair of socks to the evening’s festivities. Watching, too, is a different experience from listening and here pointed up the extent to which chamber music like this is a conversation between the players rather than a regimented or choreographed thing.
Next up, on the occasion of the composer’s 84th birthday, was R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3. I’ve not always been a fan of Schafer. There are times when his work; teetering between genius and a kind of megalomaniac pretentiousness, definitely tilts to the latter. Not so this quartet, which felt emotionally honest throughout and was very beautiful in places. It’s not a conventional piece. It’s more a hybrid of a string quartet and performance art. It starts with the cello alone on stage playing a kind of drone while offstage players contribute sparsely. The violist enters, playing, from stage left and then the violins come in from the back of the hall; one either side, processing slowly to the stage until the first movement ends with the players united in conventional array.
The second movement is very unusual. It requires the players to whoop and shout and breathe in synch as well as play highly virtuosic music. It’s the sort of thing that makes one think of what extremely talented and highly trained chimps might come up with with enough really good drugs. It’s chaotic, inventive and tremendous fun. It leads into a hypnotic and really beautiful final movement. It’s slow and melodic and otherwordly and closes with the first violin processing slowly off stage leaving the others silent on stage as the last few plaintive notes sound faintly off stage. Schafer was in the house. In fact he was in the seat in front of me and it was rather wonderful to see the obvious pleasure he was getting from such a skilful and committed performance.
After the intermission we got Beethoven’s Opus 131. I can’t quite figure out why it sounded unfamiliar but it did. Playing my reference recording; the Amadeus, this morning gave me some clues. It’s partly tempi. Certainly the SLSQ took the first movement quite a bit faster. It’s partly sound quality. The SLSQ seem to have a more period instrument kind of timbre, especially Geoff Nuttall. And, not least, the very dramatic performance style of the SLSQ influences one’s perception. All in all it made the piece sound more conventionally “classical” and a bit less “modern” than I usually hear it. Not what I was expecting but very thought provoking.
So, all in all, a very interesting and enjoyable start to the festival.