It’s not a bad idea to try to educate an audience about the music they’re going to listen to, and certainly in this year of the Leonard Bernstein centennial, that’s something many classical music groups are surely considering.
An audience at the Four Arts on Sunday got a substantial helping of good-for-you information about Franz Joseph Haydn from the first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The veteran Canadian ensemble programmed one of Haydn’s best-known quartets along with a late Beethoven quartet, the No. 15 (in A minor, Op. 132). But the Haydn, the Bird Quartet (No. 32 in C, Hob.III: 39), was preceded by a performance-talk called “Haydn Discovery,” in which Nuttall took the audience through the quartet, pointing out its themes and aspects of the composer’s style.
Nuttall, a tall, animated man who clearly loves his work, told the relatively large house in the Gubelmann Auditorium that the quartet had become convinced that audiences were not sufficiently aware of Haydn’s greatness, and decided to do an educational moment beforehand. “If you’re not surprised, shocked, moved, excited, it’s not Haydn’s fault,” Nuttall said, to great laughter. “So who’s left?”
And indeed he did a good job of making a case for Haydn, but his talk was almost 40 minutes long, which is too much for an event like this. On the one hand, while Haydn is a directly communicative composer whose music is easy to appreciate on first listen, the brilliance of his work is very subtle and hard to grasp if you’re not musically trained; players of the piano sonatas, for instance, will know exactly what I mean.
On the other, much of the Four Arts audience is well-acquainted with Haydn and not necessarily in need of a long exploration. I’d have rather had two Haydn quartets, preceded by 5 minutes or so of explanatory material each. That way, you could get a lot of music in and make the indisputable point that it’s good for us all to listen a little closer to Haydn to appreciate him more fully.
When the St. Lawrence did get around to playing the quartet, they played it beautifully, with verve and swagger. Each movement had been carefully thought through, and there was no holding back in pursuit of the chimera of Classical style. In the slow movement, for instance, there was some exceptional soft playing, rare to hear in Haydn performances but absolutely essential, and the famous finale, which many a quartet uses for a light encore, was played with vigor and great accuracy, but it was also not overly fast. It impressed the way it was supposed to, and we could hear Papa Haydn’s earthy wit come through clearly.
The second half was devoted to one of the Everests of quartet literature, the late A minor quartet of Beethoven, with its intense Heiliger Dankgesang, a hymn of thanks to the Almighty for deliverance from serious illness. A performance of this work is always an event, as it goes through a tremendous amount of mood shifting and requires the same kind of nervous energy from the listener as it does the players.
And the St. Lawrence gave an excellent, if not nonpareil, reading of this remarkable music. The first violin is required to play in its stratosphere for much of the quartet, and Nuttall had some intonation difficulties that marred some of the passages. Cellist Christopher Costanza, meanwhile, was superb in his traversal of the highest reaches of the instrument, particularly in the closing Presto.
It’s the ensemble that counts, though, and the St. Lawrence takes second place to no one on that account. The four players breathed together on this enormously difficult, emotionally demanding music, and they brought out Beethoven’s searching for a more profound kind of expression most persusasively.