Lafayette and Saguenay String Quartets; Photo credit: Christian Rouleau

Music Toronto hosts Octets: the Lafayette and Saguenay String Quartets

​​Review by  Paul Merkley FRSC
oronto ON March 15th 2019


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East and West met, joined forces, and the result was harmonious as the Lafayette String Quartet (based in the University of Victoria) and the Saguenay String Quartet (from Chicoutimi) played string octets together last night in Music Toronto’s great Chamber Music Downtown concert series at the Jane Mallett Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Yesterday was international Pi Day, March 14, or 3.14, so in that spirit I will start by doing the math: two string quartets make a string octet, a combination that began in the nineteenth century. Another good number, 33: the number of years the members of the Lafayette quartet have been together with no change of personnel: Ann Elliott-Goldschmid and Sharon Stanis (violins), Joanna Hood (viola), and Pamela Highbaugh Aloni (cello). The players of the Saguenay quartet are Marie Bégin and Nathalie Camus (violins), Luc Beauchemin (viola), and David Ellis (cello). Both quartets are well established and of high quality; they deserve to be better known in Canada and beyond.

The pièce de résistance of the evening was Mendelssohn’s lovely and charming Octet in E flat, opus 20, a work he composed at age 16. The variety of textures is exciting, and the overall sound is in a way more like an orchestra than chamber music. The eight players performed the work with confidence, competence, and joy. The lively third movement (Scherzo) delighted the audience (which filled the house), as did the fugal finale.  Both movements had quick exchanges and imitation between the players, who were spot on in their entries.

Mendelssohn worked in Leipzig, where he conducted the Gewandthaus Orchestra. He premiered the first symphony of the young Danish composer Nils Gade, mentored the young man, and retained him in Leipzig to be the assistant conductor. Under Mendelssohn’s influence, the young Dane broadened his musical style from the nationalistic, folkloric music he had been writing, to become more international, more like the music of his mentor.

This stylistic shift is evident in Gade’s String Octet in F, opus 17, composed in 1848. Of the four movements, the second, Andantino, was the most expressive. The writing for the violas was especially fine.

With the paucity of repertoire written for string octet, the ensemble commissioned Montreal composer Airat Ichmouratov. The result was his Octet in G Minor, Op. 56 (Letter from an Unknown Woman). The post-romantic music with obvious Russian influences was inspired by a novella by Stefan Zweig. A woman’s heart-breaking love and obsession for a man whose child she bore was revealed to him in a letter delivered to him after her death. The music contained the pain and anguish of her life-long love, but also the tenderness of her hopes and dreams. The love theme was especially moving given the woman’s tragic life and death. The performance touched my heart. 

The performance of these octets requires excellent co-ordination between players, and a common sense of where the piece is going, so that the music coheres and makes sense, rather than just being a rambling narrative. These players achieved that coherence and musical logic, and the result was praiseworthy.

There are two concerts remaining in the 2018/19 Music Toronto calendar. On April 2, 2019 at 8pm, Cuban-born pianist Hilario Durán will be joined by the Hilario Durán Trio, violinist Annalee Patipatanakoo and cellist Roman Borys. Later, on April 18, 2019, the Ariel Quartet will play music of Schumann, Beethoven, Webern and Brahms. Both concerts will be at the Jane Mallett Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.