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4 string quartets you need to know

Robert Rowat

Since winning first prize at the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition, Canada's Rolston String Quartet has been swept up in a whirwind of concerts throughout Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the U.S.

There's no down time for them this summer, either — the Rolstons are burning up Canada's summer festival circuit:

July 9: Westben, Campbellford, Ont.
July 24: Toronto Summer Music Festival
July 27 to 29: Ottawa Chamber Music Festival
Aug. 6: Indian River Festival, Indian River, P.E.I.
Aug. 9 to 12: Tuckamore Chamber Music Festival, St. John’s, N.L.
Aug. 14: Thousand Islands Playhouse, Gananoque, Ont.
Aug. 23: Stratford Summer Music, Stratford, Ont.
Aug. 26: Leith Summer Festival, Leith, Ont.
Sept. 1 to 3: Banff Centre International String Quartet Festival

What works for string quartet are indispensible to the members of the Rolston Quartet? We caught up with Jeff Dyrda, Luri Lee, Hez Leung and Jonathan Lo recently and put the question to them. Their answers, below.

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2

"I'd like to recommend Beethoven's String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2. Each movement of the quartet is a tiny self-contained masterpiece; a fun, robust finale is likely the catchiest tune, and the inquisitive opening movement and complex minuet derive an incredible amount of music from a small number of ideas. The real star of the show, though, is the slow movement, which is one of those profound Beethoven slow movements that compels players and listeners alike to search both within and outside of ourselves as we reflect on our place in the universe."

— Jeff Dyrda, violin

Ravel: String Quartet in F Major

"The quartet work that I would want every listener to know is Ravel’s String Quartet in F major. It is one of the greatest and most beautiful masterpieces in french music [and] one of the iconic works of the Impressionist period. This piece also has great similarities to Debussy’s String Quartet, especially in its musical form, as Ravel was highly influenced by Debussy at the time. It is in a four-movement structure and it also features a Spanish-infleunced pizzicato second movement, displaying great virtuosity from the quartet. Ravel’s String Quartet features an almost transparent atmosphere and an endless amount of colours throughout the piece, as he adds beautiful harmonies which support the song-like melodies. It is definitely not a piece to miss!"

— Luri Lee, violin

R. Murray Schafer: String Quartet No. 2, 'Waves'

"One string quartet that I would say should be a must-know for all audiences is Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 2, 'Waves.' The one-movement work is based on ocean waves recorded on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada. This piece really highlights Schafer’s musical language in a way that ties closely with nature, while showcasing the extreme possibilities of nuance and colours created by the quartet. One can almost experience the picturesque scenes of Canada within this music, through bird calls, creaking boats by the docks and summer storms. What makes this piece unique is that every audience member can use their own imagination to create their own musical experience. I think not many people know this piece, but if you get the chance to hear it, it will be an experience you will not forget!"

— Hez Leung, viola

Janáček: String Quartet No. 2, 'Intimate Letters'

"Leoš Janáček's String Quartet No. 2, 'Intimate Letters,' is a rarely heard masterpiece of the 20th-century string quartet repertoire. His last completed work, it details his mostly unrequited relationship, chronicled primarily through 700 letters, with a woman almost 40 years his junior who had a profound influence on his life and output in his final years. It is a work full of tremendous passion, colours and shifts in mood and temperament, with a sound distinctly his own."

— Jonathan Lo, cello

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