Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Lynn Harrell, cello
Oct. 19, University of Richmond

The Shanghai Quartet plays to its strengths when it plays Schubert. This composer’s combination of lyricism and passion, the classicism in his ordering of string voices and the romanticism of his expressive language, the sweetness and storminess, might have been made for these musicians’ techniques and interpretive spirit.

So a program beginning and ending in Schubert – the "Quartettsatz" in C minor of 1820 and the String Quintet in C major, his last work, completed a few weeks before his death in 1828 – made for some of the most memorable, deeply communicative performances in the Shanghai’s 20-year history at the University of Richmond.

The veteran cellist Lynn Harrell joined violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras in the Schubert Quintet, as well as the rarely heard Cello Quintet in A major (1892) of Alexander Glazunov.

Tzavaras and Harrell are both cellists of robust sonority and strong projection. Together, they gave the Schubert bass lines of orchestral scale, almost overpowering the violins and viola in the more extroverted passages of the quintet’s opening movement. Better balances prevailed in the rest of the piece. The musicians played with intense concentration and to mesmerizing effect in the bittersweet adagio, and with both refinement and rustic energy in the scherzo and finale.

Their playing and collective sensibility were at a comparably high level in the Glazunov. The work itself sounds destined to remain a curiosity, an intermittently cloying momento of lyrical late romanticism that takes its sweet time before suggesting its origin. The first movement sounds more like Grieg than like any Russian music of the time; the closest Glazunov gets to sounding Russian – and then, really, more generically Slavic – is in the main theme of the final movement.

Schubert’s "Quartettsatz" is a fitting companion, stylistically and spiritually, to his String Quintet, and the Shanghai played it with the same intense focus and dynamism that the foursome and Harrell would bring to the quintet.