Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Shanghai Quartet / Review

The Shanghai Quartet
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (19 October 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 October 2010.

Asian string quartets are not exactly a new phenomenon. The legendary Tokyo String Quartet has been thrilling audiences since the late 1960s, while the first prominent quartet to emerge from China, the Shanghai Quartet, was formed in 1983. Performing together for 27 years has lent this group a cohesiveness and homogeneity of sound that is hard to better.

Refinement and clarity were the first qualities to be discerned in Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s Bullfighter’s Prayer (left). Rapt pianissimos in contemplation resounded as each part came through vividly, alternating with the gentle dance rhythms that provided contrast for this short but revealing opener.

Music from China came next as a short suite transcribed by second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang. Honggang Li’s viola provided a pizzicato accompaniment for the familiar Yao Dance, as the spirit of traditional Chinese instruments was rekindled. The lament-like melody of Shepherd’s Song evoked memories of some dumka from a homesick Dvorak, while the rousing dance of Harvest Celebration brought out driving virtuosity from the foursome.

The first half closed with Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Third String Quartet (left), written for the quartet’s 25th anniversary in 2008. No longer the enfant terrible of the avant-garde, its quarter-hour was gratifyingly tonal, with a recognisable rhythmic motif permeating the work’s course. The quartet sympathetically negotiated a variety of emotions before settling on a sombre but reflective close.

The big showpiece was Schubert’s Quartet No.14 in D minor, better known as “Death and the Maiden”. The quartet’s incisive attack on the opening theme was awe-inspiring in its sense of drive and purpose, and it had the work’s full measure. Exchanging rapier-like thrusts with moments of aching tenderness, the emotional quotient was high throughout.

The slow movement’s Theme and Variations, based on a piano chorale theme from Schubert’s poignant Lied, was an object of rare beauty. First violinist Weigang Li was immaculate in his exquisite solos, while Nicholas Tzavaras’s cello sang without reserve. For the vigorous Scherzo and pacy finale, the music’s incessant ebb and flow was perfectly judged, as the quartet raced to a resolute ending greeted by a storm of applause.

A short Waltz by Dvorak, delectable rather than profound, was a nice way to end an enjoyable evening of chamber music.

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