Anchoring their program with C Major string quartets by Haydn and Dvorak, St. Lawrence played to the expectations of the seniors who have long supported this series. But for the university students—and those of us eager for relief from timid programming—the ensemble offered Erwin Schulhoff’s 1923 “Five Pieces for String Quartet,” a sly neo-classical suite from the little-known Czech composer’s avant garde period.
With the music of other Jewish composers killed in the holocaust—e.g. Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, and Pavel Haas—Schulhoff’s sadly neglected works appear to be enjoying a modest revival, and St. Lawrence made a compelling case for his “Five Pieces for String Quartet.” Who could resist Schulhoff’s dark parody of a Viennese Waltz, replete with bumptious rhythms, or his bittersweet Tango clotted with anxious counterpoint? His Czech Dance may have been rooted in native folk traditions, but it struck me as a scene of Sufi dervishes dancing wildly into the night. In both the Czech Dance and the concluding Tarantella, St. Lawrence proved its mettle by unleashing the abandon and passion of this music without for a moment compromising their immaculate ensemble and gorgeous tone.
Schulhoff’s 15-minute suite of dances may not be as probing as, say, the Bartók string quartets, but they show both an inventive imagination and a highly disciplined compositional technique. It is not surprising to learn that Dvorak encouraged the 10-year-old Schulhoff when he encountered him studying at the Prague Conservatory.
Dvorak’s Quartet No. 11 in C Major, Op. 61, was written for one of Vienna’s musical leaders in the late decades of the 19th century, Joseph Hellmesberger, who not only served as concertmaster for the Imperial Court Opera and director of the Vienna Conservatory, but maintained a string quartet that was eager for new repertory. For Dvorak, a provincial and non-Austrian composer, to be given the honor of writing for such a prestigious ensemble was a sign that he was finally making his mark in Vienna’s competitive musical culture. Today, of course, Hellmesberger’s name only comes up because he was shrewd enough to ask Dvorak to write him a string quartet.
The St. Lawrence Quartet shrewdly capitalized on the dramatic potential of the harmonic turbulence that opens the C Major Quartet before Dvorak settles into his typically mellifluous themes that define both the composer and much of this quartet. In that opening movement, cellist Christopher Constanza and violist Lesley Robertson produced a sumptuous sonic cushion from which violinists Geoff Nuttall and Mark Fewer could soar and dazzle. The lower voices had ample opportunities to flaunt their technical brilliance, but they consistently provided St. Lawrence with an uncommonly rich foundation.
In the glorious slow movement, Nuttall took his role as divo seriously, spinning out opulent cantabile themes that would rouse the ire and envy of leading operatic sopranos. Fortunately for him and his personal safety, such divas don’t attend chamber music concerts. In the spirited Scherzo and Finale, the ensemble’s scintillating unity and rhythmic discipline proved nonpareil.
St. Lawrence approached Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet, arguably his most celebrated and beloved string quartet, as if it were a newly discovered work they were eagerly unveiling before skeptical listeners. Their enthusiasm—especially the violinists’ athletic body language—for the effervescent opening movement was boundless, but the quartet balanced this overpowering adrenaline rush with an aetherial, almost devotional account of the variation cycle based on the hymn to the Emperor. Rarely have I heard this second movement played with such elegantly restrained ardor.
Most music-lovers know that Haydn’s beautiful hymn to his Emperor quickly became Austria’s national anthem, and in the 20th century was given new words by Germany’s National Socialists: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” There are some who cannot erase Nazism’s defilement of this music from their awareness, and I understand their position. But I sang this hymn in Protestant churches of my youth to the text of “Glorious Thing of Thee Are Spoken, Zion, City of Our God.” To me, it is a song of overpowering beauty that the Nazi association cannot take away.
I can only pray that wherever the St. Lawrence String Quartet plays this Haydn work, their sensitive performance will help restore this music to its rightful place of honor in western music. This is why following the “Emperor” Quartet with the Schulhoff work struck me as such telling programming. While we cannot erase the evil that was done in previous generations, we can hold up and celebrate the good and the beauty from the past as a sign that evil does not triumph.