Thursday, October 2, 2008

Review: Shanghai Quartet

Oct. 1, University of Richmond

In its two Richmond performances this season, the Shanghai Quartet is premiering works by two composers who would seem to have nothing in common: Dick Hyman, a musician best known for reviving historical American jazz and popular song (in the soundtracks of Woody Allen’s films, among other venues), and Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish composer whose work heralded late-20th century music's shifting of gravity from atonal avant-gardism toward a more expressive, emotive post-modernism.

Penderecki’s new quartet is coming in February. Hyman’s new Quartet in G major was given its first performance in this Shanghai program.

Jazz and pop lineage and a G major key signature invite expectations of accessibility, not to say frothiness. Hyman delivered no such thing.

This quartet boasts identifiable (if not exactly hummable) melodies and a rhythmic language clearly inherited from the American vernacular; but its voice is more serious than cheerful, and its style is modern neoclassical, hewing more closely to the models of Hindemith or Stravinsky than those of Gershwin or Bernstein. The heart of the piece is an adagio titled "Elegy for Bill Evans," the jazz pianist known for impressionistic tone coloration and a detached, rather ambivalent kind of romanticism.

The Shanghai – violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – played Hyman’s quartet with attention to details and avoidance of sentimentality. Although none of these musicians can claim a deep immersion in jazz, all handled Hyman’s jazzy rhythms idiomatically. They made a convincing case for the piece as high craft, if not great art.

The great art of this program was the adagio of Beethoven’s Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1. This first of the "Razumovsky" set of quartets is also the first really knotty example of Beethoven’s writing in the medium, in which fairly simple themes are probed, manipulated and enlarged, at all times under great stress. The uptempo movements build in energy and tension. The adagio intensifies in passion, ultimately achieving a profound sobriety of the kind heard in the most deeply spiritual hymns.

The Shanghai proved perfectly attuned to that intense but unindulgent spirituality. The depth of its expression in the adagio overshadowed an otherwise well-paced and well-contoured performance of the rest of the Beethoven quartet, and a comparably fine reading of Brahms’ Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2.

The Brahms was distinguished by judiciously balanced voices and a nice contrast of brilliance from Weigang Li’s first violin and warmth from the rest of the ensemble, especially in Tzavaras’ robust bass lines.