Rolston String Quartet
Debussy / Tchaikovsky
Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2018-09-11
One component of the Lucerne Festival is its “Debut Series”, where young artists get a chance to give a lunchtime recital in the Lukaskirche. The 2018 summer festival includes seven such debut recitals. This review is about No.6 of these concerts. Most of these are either piano or duo recitals (violin or cello with piano). See here for an overview over all past debut series recitals in this venue, which I have written about.
This concert was an exception in the Debut Series, as it presented a chamber music ensemble: the Canadian Rolston String Quartet: That quartet formation includes the following artists:
- Luri Lee, violin
- Emily Kruspe, violin
- Hezekiah Leung, viola
- Jonathan Lo, cello
These members formed the Rolston Quartet in 2013, at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Their career breakthrough was in 2016, when they won prestigious prizes at the 12th Banff International String Quartet Competition, as well as at the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition. In 2018, they also were the recipients of the Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America.
As announced, the Rolston String Quartet’s program consisted of two quartet compositions—and there was an encore:
The ensemble played in a narrow semi-circle, violins — cello — viola. They all used tablet computers rather than sheet music on paper. This allowed for a relatively narrow seating arrangement, hence excellent mutual contact.
The venue was filled only to around 60 – 70%: are string quartets considered too esoteric, “too absolute”, too abstract? Or is it that the artists don’t have a big, well-recognized name just yet?
As already in the Debut Series concert on 2018-09-04, I had a left side stall seat in row 9, with good view onto the artists.
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, L.85
Originally, Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) planned to write two string quartets. However, only one materialized in the end: the String Quartet No.1 in G minor, op.10, L.85, which he completed in 1893. The composition premiered in the same year in Paris, with mixed reactions from the audience. Debussy names this quartet “No.1″—even though he never added any other works in this genre. Also the “op.10” is “fake”: Debussy arbitrarily used “op.10” for his quartet, but did not assign opus numbers to any other composition. The four movements in the string quartet in G minor are
- Animé et très décidé (4/4, 68=½) – Très animé (6/4, 138=½)
- Assez vif et bien rythmé (6/8, 112=3/8)
- Andantino, doucement expressif (6/8, 80=♪) – Un peu plus vite (3/8, 88=♪) – 1er Mouvement
- Très modéré (4/4, 58=♩) – En animant peu à peu (12/8, 108=♩) – Très mouvementé et avec passion (2/2, 132=½) – Très animé (2/2, 138=½)
The (important) first impression: good sonority in general (more on that later). Clearly, Luri Lee at the first violin was leading. She and the cellist, Jonathan Lo, seemed the most open, the most interactive personalities while playing. There was a lot of visual interaction among the quartet members, everybody was playing with engagement, with attention, with professional attitude, throughout the concert. I also noted the ensemble’s excellent control of dynamics and balance. Where there was a solo with accompaniment, the artists diligently, finely adjusted the volume, the balance, such that the lead voice maintained presence, without dominating excessively.
I had one reservation: there was often a certain tendency towards “belly notes” (swelling in the middle of a note), or also Nachdrücken (unwanted bow acceleration towards the end of a note). The latter was less prominent or even absent with the viola. It could be that Hezekiah Leung as a tall person used more bow in general, didn’t have any need to rush towards the end of a bow? I see Nachdrücken as a bad habit in general. I also usually see belly notes as undesirable, except for some specific situations (e.g., long key notes in a phrase), where this may be done on purpose, desirable, or even specifically what the composer asked for. My personal preference is with a (slightly) percussive articulation.
I. Animé et très décidé – Très animé
Emphatic and expressive playing. It was here that I first noted belly notes and Nachdrücken. The second theme is one which would have profited from a more percussive articulation. The combination of “cloudy articulation” with the amount of reverberation in this venue affected the clarity.
The ensemble showed no weaknesses in intonation. Throughout the concert, with one positive exception, my notes don’t mention “intonation” at all—and I usually watch that critically. Yet, strangely, there were specific moments in complex textures, especially in expressive f and ff, where the pitches, the harmonies, sometimes also the rhythmic structures seemed somewhat unclear. Examples were the ff preceding  in the score, or also towards the end of the movement. I wondered whether this was a question of string selection, or maybe one of bow pressure / and placement, of the type of rosin used, or one of articulation? Could this have been aggravated by the acoustics?
II. Assez vif et bien rythmé
Lively, rhythmically firm, precise and virtuosic: excellent playing! At the same time, at least in this environment, I had the impression that the focus was more on expression, rather than in achieving the ultimate in clarity and transparency (the acoustics certainly played a role in this, too). After  in the score, starting with the rolling semiquaver figures in the cello, I liked the expressivity, the verve in the melody line in the first violin. Also, the dynamic of the quartet span was excellent, with the controlled sonority down to the finest ppp at the end of the movement!
III. Andantino, doucement expressif – Un peu plus vite – 1er Mouvement
Calm, solemn, excellent in the pp and ppp, though this was another instance where the performance (to me) was affected by Nachdrücken. I particularly liked the simplicity ad clarity of the viola solo at Un peu plus vite: very limited, sometimes no vibrato, no signs of Nachdrücken, good sonority (in this movement at least, the viola and—to a lesser degree—the cello seemed to have slightly nasal sound characteristics). I also noted the excellent tempo control across Debussy’s explicit rubato, and I liked the sad, melancholic ending, dying away in the finest ppp (if not below!): Debussy explicitly asks for aussi pp que possible (as softly as possible).
IV. Très modéré – En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion – Très animé
Nice: the limited, selective vibrato in the cello melody, in the introduction (Très modéré)! And I noted the excellent, firm intonation of the standing chords. The occasional portamento in the violin is definitely OK here.
The following segment (En animant peu à peu) starts softly, but soon builds up to an accentuated f. The quartet deliberately used a somewhat rough (rarely harsh) articulation here, and this was an instance where the sound sometimes felt like “more noise than pitch / tone”, which occasionally obscured the pitch, the harmonies. Still I liked this and the second movement most in this performance.
Overall Rating: ★★★
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No.1 in D major, op.11
Apart from early attempts, resulting in individual movements, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) only completed and published three full string quartets:
The String Quartet No.1 in D major, op.11, played in this concert, features the following movements:
- Moderato e semplice
- Andante cantabile
- Scherzo: Allegro non tanto e con fuoco – Trio
- Finale: Allegro giusto – Allegro vivace
I. Moderato e semplice
Articulated with broad, swaying portato, again unfortunately with some tendency towards Nachdrücken. At least at the beginning, the first violin and the viola appeared to hold the prominent roles. Very nice: the subtle pp at bar 10, in the second pass of the initial theme. With the waves of semiquaver lines, the music evolved into a filigree web of voices. Tchaikovsky’s tempo changes appeared natural, the ensemble’s dramatic and tempo concept conclusive.
Excellent intonation, especially with the first violin. To me, the strength vibrato reached, but seldom / never exceeded the comfort limits. The ensemble was very careful and conscious in overall dynamics, as well as in the sound balance. I really enjoyed the “Russian chorale” in the accompaniment. It almost felt like memories from orthodox church music!
With the development part, the music gets more virtuosic, more dramatic: the coordination remained very good, also across tempo changes / rubato. Certainly, the ensemble was playing at an astounding technical level, with coherence and musical mastership.
II. Andante cantabile
Also here, where the musicians played with mutes, the vibrato remained harmonious, not intrusive, and to my delight, the Nachdrücken was far less of an issue here. There is another, chorale-like melody—actually a beautiful, slightly melancholic folk song, which made this movement famous. The melody, the atmosphere also reminded me of folk tunes that Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) used in his compositions. Very notable: the excellent sonority of the first violin, especially the warm, round sound in the low register / the G string, even with the mute! It’s fascinating and touching how the movement faded away, dies off in ppp and below at the end, with the first violin ascending into the heights of a world beyond, then vanishes, accompanied by a subtle pizzicato from the other voices!
III. Scherzo: Allegro non tanto e con fuoco – Trio
Very emphatic articulation in the Scherzo, lots of verve in the syncopes: an interesting mix of melancholy and joyful, expressive playing. Some of the semiquaver passages lacked clarity. However, that was at least in parts due to the acoustics.
Interestingly, the ensemble noticeably stepped up the tempo in the Trio. The tempo seemed to fit the different character in that part of the movement (the dolcissimo e cantabile still was!). Intuitively, I had no issue with the tempo change, and also the return to the Scherzo felt absolutely natural, the performance as such was flawless. I just don’t see a justification for the tempo alteration in the score, which has no extra tempo annotation in the Trio at all.
IV. Finale: Allegro giusto – Allegro vivace
♭ movement starts harmless, with a joyful fold tune. Things change, however, when semiquaver motifs start accumulating, the dynamics get more lively, more expressive, even dramatic: it’s quite a virtuosic movement, requiring excellent coordination and timing, such as in those short staccato semiquaver interjections. The Rolston String Quartet mastered this very well, in a lively performance full of momentum.
Let me add some spotty remarks (from my notes) on how the movement sounded: there is a viola cantilena around bar 92ff, which had very nice sonority. Sadly, the repeat of the exposition was omitted, presumably for reasons of time. It definitely was a technically excellent performance, with high agility and very good dynamic control. At the two climaxes, the music sounded as motoric and dense as passages from the famous Octet in E♭ major, op.20, by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)!
After the second climax, the flow seems to calm down, but suddenly and rapidly builds up again towards an accent on a minor chord.- A long general rest follows, then the composer inserts an unexpected 12-bar, hesitant Andante, the music appears to come to a close, dying off in ppp. This is followed by a second, very long general rest, then suddenly the Allegro vivace coda bursts out: motoric, fascinating, enthralling: virtuosic, excellent technically. On top of that, it was also stunning to note how well the ensemble managed to keep the tension, even build up suspense, especially in the second general rest, prior to the coda: the musicians extended that rest until the expectation seemed to burst.
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Encore — Tchaikovsky: Morning Prayer
The outburst of the final coda had the audience erupt into fanatic applause. Hezekiah Leung announced the encore: from Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album (Детский альбом, 24 simple pieces à la Schumann), op.39, TH 141 (a composition from 1878), the No.1, “Morning Prayer” (Утренная молитва; Andante, G major, 24 bars). That’s a calm, solemn, serene (and very touching) piece. It’s not even 2 minutes, but such an excellent fit and ending to the program (despite its entirely different character and atmosphere): I couldn’t think of anything better—thanks and congratulations!
The encore ended this quartet recital by an ensemble of promising young artists. They convinced not just through their playing, but also through their professional appearance and attitude: natural, self-assured, but not pretentious!