Thursday, September 27, 2007

Review: Shanghai Quartet

Sept. 26, University of Richmond

Camp Concert Hall in the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center was built around the Shanghai Quartet. The group, then in residence at UR, gave architects and acousticians a sound reference during the 1995-96 conversion of the old theater into a music hall. It is a great room for strings, and these are the strings that made it so.

So, when the Shanghai play in "their" hall, string sound of clear focus and rich, even voluptuous, tone may be taken as a given. Assessing the quartet's performance in the space becomes a question of how it exploits the beautiful sound. Especially in music that doesn’t conform to conventional notions of sonic beauty – a category that, broadly, covers all three pieces on the Shanghai’s first UR program of the new season.

The obvious outlier was György Ligeti’s assertively modern "Metamorphoses Nocturnes;" but the works that bracketed it, Mozart’s Quartet in F major, K. 590, and Dvořák’s Quartet in A flat major, Op. 105, also upset the settled harmonic order and structural grammar of their times.

Ligeti’s multipart but single-movement quartet, written in 1954 under the spell of Bartók and amid the serial traumas of living and making music in Central Europe in the mid-20th century, is a headlong plunge into a sound world of violence, nebulous dreaminess and coarse humor. Its challenges to string technique, individual and collective, are ferocious. When played with concentration, clarity and intensity, as the Shanghai played it, the Ligeti is a consuming listening experience.

So, in quite different ways, are the Mozart and Dvořák. Both were produced late in the composers’ careers and represent their most advanced thinking about what a string quartet can say and should do. Mozart, in 1790, achieved his ultimate mastery in the weaving of discrete yet complementary voices – “Cosí fan tutte” is one product of that mastery; K. 590 is another. Dvořák's 14th and final string quartet, begun at the end of his American interlude in 1895, is one of the most sophisticated examples of the composer’s accommodation of Czech melodies and folk-dance rhythms in Brahmsian classical structures.

The Shanghai’s tonal richness was jolting at first in the Mozart, whose music is rarely heard these days with such high calorie content. Once acclimated to the sound, though, it proved easy to forget that Mozart isn’t always played this way. The more substantial "bottom" (not merely bass presence) the ensemble brought to the piece widened the soundscape, opening it to more shades of color and sharper contrast between high and low strings, an essential part of this musical discourse. The musicians played with the scope and intensity they normally display in Beethoven or Schubert – or, indeed, Dvořák.

The Dvořák didn’t sound to me as focused or tonally polished as the Mozart. Part of that we may chalk up to the post-traumatic effects of playing the Ligeti. The larger reason is that Mozart was a superior craftsman, weaving complex structures without the loose ends or collateral awkwardness that crop up even in the mature Dvořák. The Mozart sounded better because it was better composed.