Above, the illustrious Shanghai Quartet: Honggang Li (viola), Weigang Li (violin), Yi-Wen Jiang (violin), and Nicholas Tzavaras (cello)
Tuesday February 7th, 2017 - Music from four centuries was on offer this evening as the Shanghai Quartet made a most welcome appearance with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It was an outstanding evening, both in terms of repertory and playing, with a performance of the Penderecki 3rd quartet as centerpiece which enthralled listeners and left the musicians basking in a vociferous ovation and taking a double curtain-call.
The program opened with Haydn's Quartet in D major for Strings, Op. 20, No. 4; not being a Haydn devotee, I was prepared for a pleasing aural experience to bide my time til the more-anticipated portions of the program were brought forth. Instead, I found myself thoroughly engaged on an emotional level and having to re-think Haydn's position on my hit parade of composers. Until now, his music in live encounters has seemed to me attractive and finely-wrought but without the deeper pull which engages the heart and soul. This quartet was kind of a wake-up call for me.
From note one, the players of the Shanghai were ideal advocates for this Haydn score, its gentle beginnings showing off the ensemble's silken mingling of voices. Florid passages were not idle gestures but gracious references to a long-lost courtly world. In the second movement, Nicholas Tzavaras' cello made a direct connection to the spirit with his heartfelt playing - a steadily impressive element of the entire evening. The Menuetto, short and sweet and with a gypsy tinge, gives way to the elegantly exhilarating Presto scherzando. Bolstered by the Shanghai, Papa Haydn won me over.
The programming of works by Frank Bridge and Krzysztof Penderecki made this performance a double-red-letter date: both composers have written pieces of particular appeal to me, and it seemed providential to find their compositions on the same program.
From Frank Bridge, we had his 1904 Novelletten. The opening Andante moderato commences with the violin playing a very soft rocking octave motif as the other instruments sing gently. Presently the violin takes the lead, Weigang Li's tone sweet and serene. Mr. Tzavaras' cello waxes passionate, and violist Honggang Li brings another mellow element.
Bridge calls for plucking in the short central movement, marked Presto-Allegretto, with a slightly droopy quality adding a touch of irony. An ebb and flow of melodious intensity carries us on, even though an annoying cellphone intrusion ruined a particularly delicate passage.
The final Allegro vivo begins with upward-thrusting fanfares; each instrument in turn takes up melodic passages before a return to the vigorous opening heraldry sets the finale on its way.
Penderecki's disturbingly beautiful third string quartet, entitled "Leaves of an unwritten diary”, was played with immersive artistry and commitment by the Shanghai Quartet: they had premiered the piece in 2008 in Warsaw, on the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday, and tonight marked the work's CMS premiere.
This single-movement quartet opens in a somber state; the viola unfurls a melody of deep yearning which gives way to pulsing, slashing, and stuttering from the four players. Things get quite wild before subsiding into a pensive mood set by Honggang Li's viola. Alternating currents of brooding and agitation evaporate in a misterioso viola passage. After a viola 'cadenza' things turn driven with jagged thrusts and creepy, insectuous buzzings.
A lopsided, waltzy dance and a poignant violin solo lead us on to the realm of a sad dream, with ethereal violin and lamenting viola evoking elusive memories. Despair seems about to envelop us; but at the end, there is a ray of hope, or - perhaps - of resignation.
Everything about this Penderecki masterpiece and the Shanghai's playing of it resonated within me to the very depths of feeling. The composer spoke of remembered violin tunes played by his father which have woven themselves into the quartet's fabric; it is just such recollections that can haunt us so vividly decades on. As one who has - since my early teens - maintained a written diary, I have come to realize that it's things left un-recorded that most often well up unbidden from the heart: those intrinsic, illusive feelings we seek in vain to re-capture, or possibly to suppress. Thus Mr. Penderecki's title, “Leaves of an unwritten diary”, is supremely evocative.
As the waves of applause that engulfed the Shanghai players following their extraordinary performance at last died down, I felt paradoxically both engaged and remote. For a few moments, I pondered the idea of leaving so as to carry this remarkable experience away with me in all its clarity and force. My choreographer/friend Claudia Schreier and I spent the intermission talking quietly about the effect the Penderecki had had on us. Eventually it seemed that staying on was the best idea, since Dvořák beckoned.
Antonin Dvořák's Quartet in G major was the composer's last chamber work. It is a veritable font of melody, and the Shanghai Quartet's organic blend of voices made for a resplendent musical experience tonight. Thirty seconds in, I asked myself: "How could I have even thought of leaving?"
Dvořák brings an exceptionally rich palette of colours to this music, along with a rhythmic distinctiveness that captives. An abundance of themes provides each of the Quartet's players with ample opportunities for expressiveness; the tone of the work is uplifting and sings of a positive outlook which we can all savor in these uncertain times. Here, in addition to the warmth of the Quartet's lower voices and the arching flights of the first violinist, we could enjoy exceptional music-making from Yi-Wen Jiang as both melodist and harmonizer.
While all four movements of this quartet served up a veritable smörgåsbord of delights, I was particularly immersed in the Trio section of the Molto vivace where the Shanghai Quartet's playing was poignantly affecting. Incredibly, the depths of expressiveness in that Trio extended - after a reprise of the lively scherzo - into the handsomely played Lento molto cantabile which followed. Here again, the entwining of the four voices and the high halo of the violin soundings gave me shivers of bliss.
Dvořák finishes his final chamber work with the longest movement of the four, an Allegro non tanto where sunny exuberance mixes with the occasional passing of summer clouds. Repeats and roundabouts, with endless miniscule variants of speed and colour, surrender to the inevitable in an almost 'hoedown' fiddle motif before the final chords.
Recalled by insistent applause, the Shanghai Quartet offered an atmospheric encore: a traditional Chinese "Shepherd's Song", arranged by the quartet's violinist Yi-Wen Jiang. In its simplicity and sincerity, this music was a lovely end to a memorable evening.
- Haydn Quartet in D major for Strings, Hob. III:34, Op. 20, No. 4 (1772)
- Bridge Novelletten for String Quartet (1904)
- Penderecki Quartet No. 3 for Strings, “Leaves of an unwritten diary” (2008)
- Dvořák Quartet in A-flat major for Strings, Op. 105 (1895)