Bridge, Penderecki discoveries stand out in brilliant Shanghai Quartet program

Wed Feb 08, 2017 at 12:54 pm
The Shanghai Quartet performed Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall.

The Shanghai Quartet performed Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s resident musicians got a night off on Tuesday as the organization played host to a celebrity quartet at Alice Tully Hall. The Shanghai Quartet’s playing may not have been as polished as some other ensembles that have come through Lincoln Center, but the charismatic, sensitive musicianship made for a superb concert nonetheless. Chamber recitals like this one, offering bold interpretations of a wide variety of repertoire, are a singular treat.

All too often, interpretations of repertoire from the Classical period are overly timid, so afraid to break the rules of historical performance practice that they end up caricaturing them instead. There was no such problem here—Shanghai gave Hadyn’s Quartet in D Major (Op. 24, No. 2) a muscular performance that served as a powerful reminder of just why we remember the composer as the father of the genre.

The opening Allegro was bright and even, though long bows and generous vibrato gave it a Romantic touch, a rich warmth that fitfully became too much, obscuring discrete lines. Still, this was an immensely compelling rendition that found captivating drama in the music, nowhere more than in the closing statement of the second movement’s crisp variations. The players took Haydn at his word in obeying the “alla Zingarese” indication of the Menuetto, cheerily stomping through it before bringing airy brightness to the chirping, gurgling finale, tearing through the conclusion with vigor.

Their performance of Dvořák’s String Quartet in A flat, Op. 105, almost seemed tame by comparison, though the Shanghai musicians still gave an intelligent, nuanced reading. They brought vivid character to the opening Adagio, skilfully navigating as the piece decides whether it’s going to go in a dark or a light direction. In the ensuing allegro, hints of bombast hid under a surface that was alternately rustic and domestic, but always bursting with life.

An odd note of cruelty in the Scherzo contrasted brilliantly with the loving sighs of its trio section, and the soft reverie of the Lento, gently tugging at the ends of lines, was punctuated by playful touches of whimsy, charmingly delivered. The vital, sunny finale burst with joy, building marvelously to its conclusion.

The most compelling items, though, were the ones in the middle of the program, and the least familiar. The first of these was Novelletten (1904) by Frank Bridge, an English composer and teacher to Benjamin Britten. There is a striking individuality and diversity to Bridge’s sound, all of it vividly suggestive. The first movement is impressionistic, albeit in a Renoirian manner more than in a Debussian one—it has a painterly feel, folding lyrical and gently rocking gestures together into a warm, illustrative haze.

The second movement Presto is not a scherzo, exactly, but exhibits a humor of its own, rushing forward with scampering energy and employing pungent harmonies and prickly chromaticism. The finale alternates between Romantic heroism and turbulence, offering music that sticks in the ear as well as challenging it, before ending in a firm, triumphant declaration. There is a special satisfaction in hearing an artist or a group make a convincing case for a little-known work, finding a piece that they appreciate and engaging in a little musical evangelism. Would that more performers emulated that spirit.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3 could not possibly have offered a greater aesthetic contrast: where Bridge’s quartet left us galloping through an open field, Penderecki’s begins in the charred ruins of the family home. The Polish master is a composer of stunning variety, here alternating blasts from a furnace with moments of unendurable emptiness. This is a piece that claws at itself, in its dissonant skitterings creating a precisely ordered disorder that resolves into intense focus. Folk elements that sound like furious witches’ dances give way to moving tenderness, Schubertian whiffs of longing memory. It’s as if the music is gently caressing your hand one moment, and gnawing on your finger the next.

The effect is both thrilling and devastating. Listening to music like this is a harrowing experience, exploring vast emotional depths and finally leaving listeners in a cold sweat as they ponder the meaning of the piece’s ominous subtitle, “Leaves of an unwritten diary.” One hopes we’ll be listening to Penderecki’s music for a long time to come.

The Shanghai Quartet gave a single encore, the “Song of the Shepherd” by Han-Kun Sha. The quartet arrangement, by the group’s own second violinist, Yi-Wen Jiang, is a lovely adaptation of the Chinese folk song, gently pulsing under a richly sentimental, flowing melody.


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