July 17, 2019

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts Closes Season with Youthful String Quartet

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts ended its 2019 season last week with a return to the classics, as Canada’s Rolston String Quartet performed the final concert of the series. Formed six years ago at the picturesque and renowned Banff Arts Center in Alberta, Canada, the Rolston String Quartet provided a fitting close to a season featuring innovation by showing the future of classical music through the masterworks of the past. Violinists Luri Lee and Emily Kruspe, violist Hezekiah Leung, and cellist Jonathan Lo dazzled the audience at Richardson Auditorium last Friday night with their musicality and energetic approach to the works of string quartet masters Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven bracketing a complex piece by 20th-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti.

“Papa” Haydn is considered the father of the string quartet genre, which Beethoven subsequently pushed to new musical boundaries. Among Haydn’s most well-known string quartet compositions are those contained in Opus 76, the last complete set of the more than 60 quartets the composer wrote. Quartet No. 63 in Bb Major, the fourth of Opus 76, acquired the nickname “Sunrise” for its depiction of the sun coming up over the horizon, and the Rolston String Quartet brought out well the diverse shadings one sees in an early sunlit sky. In the first movement “allegro con spirito,” the Rolston players placed their musical emphasis on “con spirito,” energetically moving through the allegro with clean sforzandi accents and a light violin sound from Lee’s Baroque-era instrument. Lee and Kruspe also demonstrated especially sweet thirds between the two violin parts.

An image of the sun struggling to emerge was evident in the second movement, as the Quartet played with seamless lines over a solid foundation from cellist Lo. The ensemble also brought out well the humor of the fourth movement finale, leading to a fast and furious close to Haydn’s fiery and innovative work.

The music of Hungarian composer Ligeti was heavily influenced by fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók, whose string quartets had been banned from performance by the Communist regime in Hungary at the time. Ligeti composed String Quartet No. 1, titled Métamorphoses nocturnes, from 1953-54, shortly before emigrating to Austria in 1956. His String Quartet, comprised of 17 contrasting sections in one continuous movement, was premiered in Vienna in 1958 by the Hungarian Ramor Quartet, whose members had also fled into exile.

Ligeti’s Quartet was comprised of two themes — one mystical and the second more jagged, with occasional respites of tonality. A true test of the Rolston ensemble’s technical skills, this work had a great deal of musical punctuation which the players achieved with unified silences.  All four players performed with a similar level of physicality when approaching the music, handling well the diverse musical styles within the piece.

In contrast, Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, the first of his three 1806 Opus 59 Razumovsky quartets, was a return to the Viennese chamber music tradition begun by Haydn and Mozart. Beginning with a smooth cello melody subtly accompanied by violin and viola, the Rolston Quartet played the first movement with emotion, but within an elegant classical framework. The ensemble was able to execute dynamic shifts on a dime and maintained a sense of delicacy. The second movement was particularly light and sparkly, as each instrument conveyed its own distinctive personality in musical dialog.

The Rolston String Quartet seemed to seek out musical drama, and there was a great deal to be found in Beethoven’s Quartet No. 7. Cellist Lo had a chance to shine in the third movement, which contained significant melodic material his instrument, accompanied by very clean pizzicato playing from the other musicians. The flow from the third to the fourth movements was especially graceful, as the ensemble demonstrated the ability to musically rise and fall together. 

This year’s Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series presented both the classical masterworks and new music in a variety of instrumentation, ranging from piano trio to brass trio to string quartet. Now in its 52nd season, the Summer Chamber Concerts series continued to achieve new heights in offering the highest level of performance to Princeton audiences for free, providing a refreshing musical reprieve from hot summer nights.