Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Stephen Prutsman, piano & composer
Feb. 15, University of Richmond

Some chamber groups perform certain pieces so often and so well that they’re thought to “own” them. That’s the case with the Shanghai Quartet and Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. The Shanghai has played the Brahms with a number of pianists – most memorably, the late Ruth Laredo – and has consistently given performances of high intensity and expressiveness.

With their latest collaborator, pianist Stephen Prutsman, the foursome lived up to their reputation in this music, and in at least one way improved upon past renditions. I cannot recall a live performance of the Brahms by this ensemble – or, for that matter, any other – that brought out its inner voices with as much clarity, yet without any loss of the music’s passion or forward momentum.

The Brahms was the highlight of a program whose centerpiece was music composed and arranged by Prutsman, who is at least as active creatively as he is re-creatively.

The Piano Quintet by Prutsman that was to be premiered in this concert turned out to be two movements from “Sweet Suite,” a kind of homage to the dance-inspired suites of Bach and other baroque composers. “Sara’s Band,” a sarabande (what else?), is a pleasantly meandering lyrical miniature, while “Her Pet Chatterbox (A Gigue)” stutters merrily through a succession of rhythmic permutations.

Prutsman and the Shanghai also played his “Three Jazz Standards for piano and string quartet,” treatments of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” John Coltrane’s “Naima” and Joe Zawinal’s “Birdland” – none from the canon of piano jazz, which may be a surprise considering that the arranger is a pianist. Prutsman’s arrangements are eventful, especially harmonically, and generally faithful to the originals. The dynamism of “Birdland” makes it a real crowd-pleaser.

The program opened with the Shanghai playing Mozart’s Quartet in B flat major, K. 458, known as the “Hunt” Quartet. The four musicians – violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – produced a full-bodied, almost plummy, sonority rather at odds with the lean, low-vibrato string sound lately favored for Mozart. This paid dividends in a richly expressive adagio, at the cost of some aural congestion in louder passages of the opening and closing allegros.