Monday, March 13, 2006

St. Lawrence String Quartet

It has been said that we're living in a golden age of string-quartet performance. And with such groups as the Kronos, Emerson, Takacs and Pacifica quartets, it's hard to argue otherwise.

To that list add the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The Stanford University-based group played Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich brilliantly on Friday at Wolf Trap.

Mozart's Quartet, K. 575, is about as perfect as they come -- shot through with sunshine, song and a touch of drama. The St. Lawrence measured its sound flawlessly, thanks to radiant playing from first violinist Geoff Nuttall and cellist Christopher Costanza. Like singers shading every word, Nuttall caressed and cajoled Mozart's phrases while Costanza added lyrical affection and a sense of dance.

If Mozart's quartet is sunny and self-assured, Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet is its polar opposite -- dark and choked with fear. Nuttall called it Shostakovich's "requiem for himself," complete with scenes of hysteria, gunfire and graveyard humor. The Allegro's Jewish melody burst in, panicked to the brink of madness. In each moment, up to the final notes of fatigued resignation, the St. Lawrence performance held the listener by the throat.

The grip loosened in Beethoven's Op. 131, a mercurial, mysterious quartet covering extreme ranges of emotional terrain. Here's where the St. Lawrence encountered a few bumps in the road -- too much brake in the opening allegro, and too much gas in the finale. At times it seemed the group tried to manhandle Beethoven, but ultimately it was Beethoven who got the best of the St. Lawrence.

Let's hope the group maintains its lush, detailed sound, as a personnel change is slated for the fall.

-- Tom Huizenga

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

The death of a friend kept conductor Yuri Temirkanov from scheduled appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Much credit is due, then, to substitute maestro James Judd, who -- stepping in at the eleventh hour -- was able to turn Saturday night's program at Strathmore Hall into one of the finer concert events of the season.

The British-born Judd (perhaps best known in this country for his splendid work with the late, lamented Florida Philharmonic) led a notably cogent and propulsive reading of Richard Strauss's sprawling tone poem, "Ein Heldenleben." This wasn't a romantically indulgent performance. But it was virile, passionate, brooding, combustible and, when necessary, tender. More important, it held together with an architectural logic that made this lengthy piece sound like a single, urgently expressed thought. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney, playing with wit and a mercurial range of emotion, drew tremendous character from the important solo-violin writing. And every section of the orchestra sounded at the very top of its game.

Earlier in the evening, Sayaka Shoji (yet another in the seemingly endless parade of gifted young violinists introduced each season) gave a commanding performance of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, offering burnished tone, sweetly lyrical phrasing and pizzicato effects delivered with whip-crack precision. Here, and in a suite from Prokofiev's opera "The Love for Three Oranges," Judd drew all the pungency and spiky color one could wish for from the music.

-- Joe Banno

Russian National Orchestra

Silky-smooth strings; warm, winsome woodwinds; bright, brilliant brass; poised, piquant percussion -- the Russian National Orchestra evinced them all Friday night under the direction of principal guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski at George Mason University's Center for the Arts.

Stravinsky's arrangement of three excerpts from "Sleeping Beauty" showcased chamber music precision and perfect instrumental balance. Next came a Jurowski-arranged suite from Stravinsky's "Le Baiser de la Fee" ("The Fairy's Kiss"), a ballet in which Stravinsky reshaped and expanded early Tchaikovsky songs and piano works to tell an allegorical tale of that composer's tangled relationship with his muse. Jurowski's unusual conducting style was effective: Slight gestures elicited huge variations in dynamics and helped make difficult rhythmic changes sound effortless. Concertmaster Alexei Bruni played his lengthy solos with the utmost grace.

Suite No. 3 for Orchestra, the longest and most elaborate of Tchaikovsky's four orchestral suites, was the concert's major work. The first movement brought emotionalism without wallowing, the second was filled with delicacy and warmth, and the third had rhythmic bite. The lengthy finale -- which starts with a deceptively simple theme that evolves through variations toward a grand and grandiose polonaise -- was filled with wondrous raucousness.

Afterward, the orchestra was visibly tired -- Tchaikovsky is particularly unforgiving of string players -- but gamely offered two "Sleeping Beauty" encores, including a waltz that practically oozed charm. The multiple standing ovations were richly deserved.

-- Mark J. Estren

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