Festival Vancouver 2008

Lafayette String Quartet (Victoria)
Sunday, 10 August 2008 @ 5.30 pm • Christ Church Cathedral

Reviewer J H Stape

Based at the University of Victoria, the Lafayette String Quartet is all fire and ambition. This top-flight concert of serious American and Canadian music was a bravura display of stylish, refined playing. And in a programme of immense technical and interpretive challenges, confidence and devastating panache were the watchwords.

American composer Samuel Barber's highly appealing String Quartet No. 11, familiar because its Adagio has been adapted for full string orchestra, set the mood. The first movement, brimful of ideas, is cut on the grand scale and gestures towards the Classical period.

The melancholy and elegiac Adagio, a prolonged sigh set to music, is heartfelt and powerful and sounded even more so in its "thinned out" original context than in the slightly souped up lushness of the orchestral version. The brief contrastive Molto allegro close was urgency and gentle wistfulness by turns.

Ruth Crawford Seeger's ten-minute String Quartet (1931) -- her only work in the genre -- is not only a dauntingly complex machine but an expression of the Modernist idiom at its most developed and sophisticated.

Contrastive character dominated, with the third audacious movement something utterly new in the soundscape, while the jagged and panicky fourth is comprised of outbursts of rage.

The playing here was white heat: crisp, razor-sharp in its control, and displaying musical intelligence and skill of the first order.

And there was more no less. The close was the continuous five-movement Quartet No. 11 of Canadian R. Murray Schaefer, commissioned by the Lafayette for their twentieth anniversary in 2006, and played with an authority that was nothing less than spellbinding.

This is a full scale-piece opening in modern chaos and entropy as the instruments join the solo violin in turn. Highly rhythmic, there are increasingly glimpses of melody and lyricism with these coming to the fore in the touching third movement, the description of a sunset (the composer's designation), the dying sun going out in gashes of colour and in brilliant flashes, fighting against inevitable extinction.

Brooding romance follows in a movement that is mainly a dialogue between the cello and violon, and the close of the quarter is overtly romantic with the magical sound of the Aeolian harp evoked, a wind instrument that so mesmerized the Romantic period.

The Lafayette's sound shimmered throughout, their balance flawless -- as might be expected in a group that has celebrated two decades of playing together -- and a golden-honey quality emanated from the gorgeous instruments (not described in the programme but clearly of the top-drawer kind). Lucky Victoria. We certainly ought to hear this group more often in Vancouver.

© 2008 J H Stape