Friday 1 February 2013

SHANGHAI QUARTET / 6th Singapore Chamber Music Festival / Review

6th Singapore Chamber Music Festival
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Wednesday (30 January 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 February 2013 with the title "Shanghai Quartet's explosive rapturous night".

The Shanghai Quartet has been regular visitors to Singapore, and it had the honour of opening the 6th Singapore Chamber Music Festival with a recital of stark contrasts. Beethoven appears in many string quartet programmes, because his 15 quartets broke new ground on a form that began with his teacher Haydn, and went on to define the genre.

Even if his G major Quartet (Op.18 No.2) was an early work, traces of future greatness may be discerned. The foursome articulated its themes with crispness and clarity, in a very cohesive performance all round. The slow movement had a hymn-like quality, looking forward to Beethoven’s fondness for longeurs, but also showed how the quartet coped with sudden shifts in dynamics when lingering Adagio cantabile quickened into a brisk Allegro.

If young Beethoven was adventurous and somewhat impetuous, then mature Bartok was an outright radical who rewrote all the rules. The Hungarian’s Fourth String Quartet was the vanguard of modernism in 1928, and its grinding dissonances and bald discords still sound provocative today. The Shanghai Quartet coaxed a totally coherent reading, one that brings to mind that stupendous outing by the Tokyo String Quartet in 1991. 

Its second movement was a study of pianissimo and prestissimo, of nervous disquiet not quite dispelled by the third movement’s spooky nocturne. As if in sympathy with things that go bump in the night, a spotlight in the ceiling of the stage exploded with a terrific rupture, just as the players readied themselves for the famous pizzicato fourth movement (below). That and the rumbustious finale in a driving Bulgarian rhythm, unerringly wrought, brought out the cheers.

Like in the evening before, the visiting main act was joined by locals for a grand finale. Singapore’s T’ang Quartet faced off with their Shanghai counterparts in Mendelssohn’s celebrated Octet Op.20. The stunning work of genius by a 16-year-old, its symphonic pretentions were apparent, as was the virtuoso part written for the first violinist as if in a concerto.

For this, Weigang Li rose to the occasion with a quiet and distinguished aplomb. Never seeking to upstage his seven associates, his paradoxical role was that of leader and equal partner. Together, their performance was one of intoxicating passion and camaraderie. The sheer sonority of strings in the outer movements, despite each player having a different and distinct part, had the homogeneity of oneness. In the popular Scherzo, a fairy-like lightness provided the music and spirits a life-affirming lift. These fine qualities, in a nutshell, are the essence of good chamber music. 

The 6th Singapore Chamber Music Festival at the Conservatory continues well into March. All concerts are non-ticketed and admission is free. 

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