Monday, 3 May 2010

BEETHOVEN AND THE BOYS by T'ang Quartet / Review

T’ang Quartet
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (1 May 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 May 2010.

In what seems like the T’ang Quartet’s first concert on its own for many months, it presented a well-thought out 90-minute programme that was a primer of the string quartet genre. Cellist Leslie Tan served as the quartet’s mouthpiece, introducing each work to the full-house audience in a casual, off-the-cuff and friendly manner.

Beginning with Mozart’s Adagio & Fugue, dotted rhythms were emphatically punched out while the interweaving counterpoint clearly delineated, with the foursome in sync throughout. A good start which got better with the humorous final movement of Haydn’s (left) “Frog” Quartet, so curiously named because repeated notes played on different strings (a technique called bariolage) reminded some publisher of an amphibian’s wail.

With Beethoven and Schubert, the quartet ambled into the heart of serious repertoire. The Cavatina from the former’s late quartet Op.130 was prayer-like in intensity, while the latter’s Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement) alternated between agitation and relaxed lyricism. Both resonated with deeply heartfelt playing.

With the “First Viennese School” accounted for, the shock factor of Anton Webern’s Five Movements Op.5 (a prime example of the “Second Viennese School”) could not have been more marked. Terse, astringent and pointillist, the music benefited from the quartet’s spirited and incisive attack, which did not pull punches. The audience sat through its ten atonal minutes attentively and without murmur, a good sign.
Commemorating Samuel Barber’s centenary, his three-movement Quartet Op.11 was performed in its entirety. Its claim to fame is the central Adagio, but heard in context with the outer movements, it all made perfect sense. Restlessness made way for contemplation before a return to early travails. Life is pretty much like that too.

The tour de force fell to Beethoven’s monumental Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) Op.133, which paid tribute to the past and looked onward into the future. While its sharp dissonances and hairpin dynamic turns were adroitly negotiated, the heat of the moment saw cellist Tan turning a wrong page. While lesser musicians would have panicked and stopped dead, he coolly and calmly played his way back into the score, culminating in a brilliant finish. The joys and perils of chamber music have seldom been more vividly realised.

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