Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Michael Tree, viola
Jan. 25, University of Richmond

This season’s visit by the Shanghai Quartet to the University of Richmond, played to near-full house in the Modlin Arts Center’s Camp Concert Hall, proved to be meatier, both in content and execution, than most of the programs that the ensemble has presented here in recent years.

This program was framed by two works of near-epic proportions: Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, and Brahms’ Quintet in F major, Op. 88, the latter with Michael Tree, formerly of the Guarneri Quartet, playing second viola.

The first, and in some ways the most elusive, of Beethoven’s late quartets, Op. 127 is at times as tumultuous as the composer’s most in-your-face orchestral music, and at other times rarified to the point of other-worldiness. These two modes of expression sometimes coexist in uneasy proximity, notably in the finale. Throughout the work, string sound see-saws from highly refined to earthy, even (ideally) gritty.

The Shanghai rode this musical bronco mostly in the saddle (there were a couple of minor spills), and with considerable assertiveness. The foursome – violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – produced a robust collective sound, rooted in Tzavaras’ massively sonorous bass lines, that served to heighten contrasts with quieter or more finely drawn passages.

Their one interpretive misstep in the Beethoven was a scherzo whose tempo was so speedy that string figurations inevitably sounded smeared. 

The Brahms quintet, while not as long as the Beethoven, is at least as grand-scaled. Its opening allegro is one of the longest movements that Brahms composed, all but daring interpreters to maintain continuity through an eventful but rather meandering development section. Its slow movement, a soulfully lyrical adagio interrupted twice by a trio section from a missing scherzo, may be the most episodic music of the mature Brahms.

The Shanghai and Tree – he playing what must be one of the largest violas in captivity – rose to Brahms’ various challenges in a performance of enveloping warmth and carefully calibrated passion.

Between those two behemoths, the Shanghai reprised one of its mainstay miniatures, Joaquín Turina’s “La oración del torero” (“The Toreador’s Prayer”), colorful and cannily dramatized music that the group played with spontaneity and go-for-broke expressiveness, but without a hint of coarseness.