Saturday, 28 January 2012

OF FRIENDS AND FOLLOWERS / T'ang Quartet / Review

T’ang Quartet
National Museum Exhibition Galleries
Thursday (26 January 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 January 2012 with the title "Four play to impress".

The only pair of concerts held in conjunction with the Dreams & Reality exhibition of artworks from the Musee d’Orsay not devoted to piano literature was given by the T’ang Quartet. True to form, not everything Singapore’s premier chamber group performed was impressionist either. “Think out of the box” seemed to be their credo.

The startlingly modern strains of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces opened the concert. The angular nature of the Dance, with insistent drumming beats from Leslie Tan’s cello, Ng Yu Ying’s stabbing violin syncopations, violinist Ang Chek Meng’s rhythmic thrusts and Lionel Tan’s single-note scrapes on the viola, were calculated to shock. Cubism, primitivism, avant-garde, or call it what you will, these aphoristic miniatures were over in a manner of minutes.

“What is impressionism anyway?” queried the quartet’s usual spokesman Leslie (above), adding that “music and art were all about making impressions”, and that the term concocted by art critics sometimes served to limit the imagination. “Debussy hated being labelled an impressionist,” and “not everything had to sound thin and blurry,” said he too, and so there.

Their next set of pieces, the Three Novelettes by Englishman Frank Bridge, was anything but impressionist. The highly tonal and very personable essays were more like mood pictures, capable of conjuring up ideas, visions and scenarios in the mind. Atmospheric at parts, chatty when the comedic timing of the playing clicked, and mostly a fount of lyricism, these little gems sounded delectable in these hands.

The main course, Debussy’s ground-breaking String Quartet of 1893, was rightly served last. How radical it must have sounded then, when sweet and pleasing platitudes of the Belle Époque were shattered with such uncompromising boldness. Notable was the scherzo, which rebounded with striking and percussive pizzicatos, the spirit of jangling Javanese gamelans being gloriously revived.

The pianissimos of the slow movement were beautifully crafted, and as the audience held its collective breath, one could hear a pin drop. All this served to make the busy finale, with its panoply of counterpoint and reprised themes, all the more rousing and impressive.

With four men bowing their hearts out, was this the climax of the masterfully curated series of concerts? It was difficult to say, as each evening this reviewer attended had its own share of pleasures and little surprises on offer. All these were aided by highly attentive (and impeccably behaved) audiences and a handsomely illustrated 56-page programme book with excellent, lively and appropriately pitched programme notes by Marc Rochester and Francophile Roger Nichols. Great art and great artistry deserved nothing less.

The reviews of the other performances may be found on these links:

Melvyn Tan's Piano Recital (5 January 2012):

Dennis Lee & Toh Chee Hung's Piano Recital (12 January 2012):

Albert Tiu's Piano Recitals (19 & 20 January 2012):

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