Thursday, 2 March 2017

AMBER QUARTET / Ones To Watch Series / Review

Ones To Watch Series
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (28 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 March 2017 with the title "Slick show of versatility".

Twenty years after making the Academy Award-winning documentary From Mao To Mozart (1979),  venerated American violinist Isaac Stern returned to Beijing where he was filmed giving a masterclass to a young Chinese string quartet. He commended the players for their technique but commented on a lack of passion and insight.

These caveats no longer hold true for many young Chinese musicians today, such as the Amber Quartet, winner of the prestigious Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition in Melbourne in 2013. Its four members are recent graduates of Beijing's Central Music Conservatory, and they impressed with a slick show of musicianship and versatility.

Opening with Anton Webern's very early Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement, 1905), the foursome was totally at home in its late Romantic language, no more modern than Wagner or Brahms. The langorous and aching lyricism found a sympathetic voice with the players' individual lines, and together the harmonic balance was close to perfect.

In Yunnan-born Chinese composer Zhang Zhao's First String Quartet (2001), the sense of interplay through its four short movements was ever more acute. The title “Totem” provided a clue. Its use of indigenous folk music, dance and vocal traditions was akin to Bartok's strings quartets, albeit with strong Chinese accents.

Violist Wang Qi was assigned the main melodic interest in the first two movements. His evocation of a “Singer” and a “Musician” (actual titles of these movements) were both vivid and earthy. Sonic effects were also legion. Bowing close to the bridge, pizzicatos in various degrees of forcefulness and tapping of the instruments' wood, all conjured a percussive vibe and an authentic rusticity of the Middle Kingdom.

In the slow movement “Sorceror”, Yang Yichen's cello provided a drone that wailed through microtones, like a shaman's voice slipping within the cracks between keys. The rhythmic finale “Drummer” was a wild dance, with echoes of the virile Adolescents Dance from Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring

Mendelssohn's Sixth String Quartet in F minor (1847) was also the German composer's last major work. Conceived in response to his sister Fanny's death, this was a far cry from his usually congenial musings. Opening with extreme vehemence, its outpouring of grief and rage was handled with requisite passion and accuracy. Agitated outbursts alternating with calmer asides made for a listen of gripping tension and unease.

The Scherzo was no elfin dance, but darkly-coloured and served with unremitting intensity. In the slow movement, lyricism reigned but its reflection was one born of longing and regret. The furious last movement had only one theme, hammered home with a frenzied obsession of finality, but not  without a show of soloistic virtuosity from first violinist Ning Fangliang.

Here was one leaving the stage with a last big hurrah, but the Amber Quartet's encore was more subdued. Astor Piazzolla's slow and nostalgic Oblivion was played like they meant every note of it.  

NB: For this concert by the Amber Quartet, Ma Weijia replaced Su Yajing for the second violin part. 

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