Wednesday, 23 November 2011


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Monday (21 November 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 November 2011 with the title "Fab four from Shanghai".

It was a great pleasure to be reacquainted with the Shanghai Quartet at the Conservatory, in a concert which cemented its reputation among the world’s elite chamber groups. Now in its 28th year since its founding by students at the Shanghai Conservatory, the chemistry between individual members remains awe-inspiring.

Its performance of Mozart’s “Hunt” String Quartet in B flat major (K.458) was a model of incisive precision and togetherness. The approach on the opening movement, which reminded early listeners of a hunting horn, also had lightness and a sense of perfect control. The sound projection in arguably Singapore’s best hall for chamber music came close to perfection, with each instrument’s timbre clearly delineated in both solo and ensemble playing.

Even better was Smetana’s autobiographical First String Quartet in E minor, which carried the title “From My Life”. Li Honggang’s emphatic viola solo breathed an air of defiance, answered by his partners’ passionate outbursts. Not one for faint hearts, the quartet played as if their lives depended on it, reliving the composer’s confessions, trials and tribulations without fear or apology.

They revelled in the folksy dance moments, which alternated with sterner minutes, no better illustrated by cellist Nicholas Tzavaras’s soulful lament in the slow movement. The busyness of the finale was rendered more poignant with first violinist Li Weigang’s piercing shriek, the abrupt musical representation of tinnitus and the composer’s deafness. That the work ended on a muted and subdued note, stated with much stoicism, was a sobering statement on the transience of life itself.

The pleasure of sonority was doubled when violist Zhang Manchin and cellist Qin Li-Wei, both conservatory faculty members, joined in for Brahms’s First String Sextet in B flat major (Op.18). There cannot be too much of a good thing here, as all six musicians blended beautifully through its four movements, beginning with seriousness and closing with good cheer.

The overall excellence may be summed up in the second movement’s Theme and Variations, where together they sounded resolute in unity, and within seconds melting away for each solo thread to be discerned with stunning clarity. The camaraderie displayed was infectious, and this is the reason why recordings cannot replace the immediacy and spirit of live performance.

The Shanghai Quartet and friends take a bow. By the way, the second violinist of the quartet was Jiang Yi-Wen.

No comments: