Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Shanghai & Wang

Feb. 14, University of Richmond

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated concert of Richmond’s current season was the return of the Shanghai Quartet with the gifted young pianist Yuja Wang to the University of Richmond. The five musicians, playing to a nearly full house in Camp Concert Hall (including some listeners who were new to chamber music, judging by the applause between movements), ranged across a variety of idioms, playing consistently with dynamism and intensity.

The program began and ended with examples of the classical mainstreaming of folk song and dance: a mini-suite from “Chinasong,” violinist Yi-Wen Jiang’s set of string-quartet arrangements of traditional and popular Chinese tunes; and Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, arguably the best job this composer made of incorporating Czech folk music into classical form.

The Dvořák quintet also offers every player a substantial cameo, and Wang and the Shanghai – violinists Weigang Li and Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – exploited these moments with both vitality and sensitivity. Honggang Li’s viola was the most soulful of the lot (Dvořák was a violist by trade in his younger years, and he always treated the instrument kindly); Wang’s contributions on the piano were sparkling or robust, as the music warranted, and her balances with the fiddles were unerring. Some continuity was lost when Jiang broke a string during the third-movement furiant, but the ensemble sustained the tuneful and rustically rhythmic spirit of the piece.

Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor is a tougher undertaking, both in harmonic language and balancing of piano and string voicings. Its mood is turbulent and its tone generally dark, yet much of its writing is in higher registers, especially those of the violins. Wang laid a fairly monumental foundation, atop which the Shanghai built an edifice of bright colors and rather angular lines.

The pianist, who celebrated her 23rd birthday on Feb. 10, took a solo turn in two Scarlatti sonatas, the D major, K. 414, and G major, K. 455, that she recently recorded for her second album, due to be released in April by Deutsche Grammophon. Wang’s crystalline touch and wistful tone in the D major contrasted nicely with a more energetic, pianistically muscular reading of the G major.