Shanghai Quartet lights a fire for Chamber Music Houston

Fri Oct 27, 2017 at 3:42 pm
By Steven Brown

The Shanghai Quartet performed Thursday night at Rice University for Chamber Music Houston.

The opening Adagio of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1 hinted at what was in store Thursday night at Rice University — not just in the Shanghai Quartet’s first work of the evening, but in the group’s entire program for Chamber Music Houston.

Mendelssohn’s spacious phrases emerged in the kind of full, resonant tones that ensembles often give to heartfelt late-Beethoven slow movements. An ensemble that launched Mendelssohn so richly was unlikely to bear out the stereotype of his music as pretty but innocuous.

Sure enough, violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras played with a fervor and fire that gave the lie to the old canards. Shanghai brought even more intensity to the Frank Bridge and Johannes Brahms quartets that rounded out the concert at Rice’s Stude Concert Hall. The group’s passion and dynamism on Thursday suited three quartets that were all the work of composers in their youth.

Mendelssohn wrote his quartet at age 20, during the trip to the British Isles that inspired his “Scottish” Symphony and other works. Bridge crafted his Quartet No. 1 when he was 27; he dispatched it to an Italian composition contest that ultimately awarded him an honorable mention. Though Brahms didn’t publish his Quartet in C minor until he was 40, he started it in his 20s, and it shares his youthful works’ volatility.

The Shanghai group revealed that Mendelssohn, too, had a volatile streak. Yes, the foursome brought gleam and flowing lyricism to the sunny melody that opens the first movement proper. But when a restless minor-key theme took over, the ensemble’s shadowy tone and surging pace captured its brooding.

The slow movement began glowingly and built to passionate outbursts on the vibrancy of violinist Li’s solo flights. The group bounded into the finale, and dug in further when the music reached a boiling point. Yet when serenity returned in the form of the first movement’s main theme, the group’s collective calm returned as well.

Bridge’s quartet also brought back its opening theme — a pensive melody introduced by the cello — at the close. That motif bookended a quartet filled with drama and changing moods, and the Shanghai group played it vividly.

No sooner had the opening theme presented itself than It suddenly took new form, flaring up to set the first movement in motion, and Shanghai filling the music with sweep and incisiveness. Violist Li’s lush tone enabled an ardent new theme to lead in a more lyrical direction, and his colleagues joined in avidly.

The players reveled in the music’s contrasts, and in the slow movement’s span of brooding chords, broad lyricism and stark eruptions. A buoyant third movement offered a break from the intensity, but turbulence returned in the finale, and the players savored  the closing frame’s contrasts between brooding and outbursts.

Brahms’ quartet brought an even more arresting range of sound and character, from warmth to explosiveness. The very beginning was lean, surging and quiet, and soon enough the players let Brahms’ fires blaze. But they just as readily allowed more relaxed, euphonious tones interrupt the agitation.

The Romanze glowed, making even more of the rich tonality that Shanghai had first conjured in the evening-opening Mendelssohn quartet: Sometimes the four players welled up as one; and they sometimes diverged, bringing out the poetry of the voices’ interplay. The third movement offered subtle shifts between pensiveness and lilt, and the finale capped the quartet powerfully. The players dug into the stormiest moments so fiercely that an occasional stroke landed with a scratch or scrape. But that was a small price to pay for such electricity.

Chamber Music Houston’s season continues with the Modigliani Quartet on Nov.

One Response to “Shanghai Quartet lights a fire for Chamber Music Houston”

  1. Posted Oct 29, 2017 at 11:34 pm by Nora Avins Klein

    Wonderful review. We thought they were splendid, too!

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