Sunday, November 17, 2013

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Peter Serkin, piano
Nov. 15, University of Richmond

The Shanghai Quartet has worked with many of the finest pianists in chamber music over the years. With a few of them, the music-making audibly has been a labor of love. To judge from his performance with the quartet at the University of Richmond, Peter Serkin sounds to be one of those few.

For most in the near-capacity crowd in the Modlin Arts Center’s Camp Concert Hall, the evening’s highlight was Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, which Serkin and the Shanghai treated to an unusually expressive reading.

It was almost Dvořák-as-Schumann, with ample use of rubato, high contrast of tempos and tempers, and extra sweetness in the big lyrical tunes. The earthiness and rhythmic snap of Czech folk song and dance were effectively sublimated. The result, to my ears, was quite beautiful, at times quite exciting, but not quite Dvořák.

The pianist and quartet also reprised the “Dance Capriccio” of the Chinese-born Bright Sheng, which they premiered last year in Detroit.

Of all the Chinese composers who’ve emerged in the past generation, Sheng is perhaps the most “western” in his style, which recalls traditional folk material within the framework of Stravinskian neoclassicism, and in his instrumental voicings. His more recent music rarely asks players to impersonate traditional Chinese instruments, although they often create that effect collectively.

The “Dance Capriccio” is one of the more effective showcases of Sheng’s cultural synthesis. Almost a Chinese-accented analogue to European folk-dance settings (of, say, Dvořák or Kodály), the piece sustains its energy, atmosphere and generally good cheer over its fairly brief length, and calls for virtuosity that is neither garish nor gratuitous.

The Shanghai opened the program with the String Quartet in E minor of Giuseppe Verdi, a marginal piece of the Italian composer’s repertory that is being played a lot in this 200th anniversary year. The Verdi quartet doesn’t sound like it was dashed off in three days while he was stuck in a Naples hotel (which it was) with some refinements made later; but he didn’t waste any memorable melodies or instrumental effects on the piece.

The quartet – violinist Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – gave the Verdi an appropriately warm, romantic reading. Tzavaras’ songful cello solo in the trio section of the third movement was an added treat.