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Beethoven Apparition at Music Mountain

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jun 25th, 2018

From Left: Weigang Li, Yi-Wen Jiang, Nicholas Tzavaras, founder Honggang Li 

The Beethoven quartet marathon continues at Music Mountain which has provided the rare opportunity to hear a live performance of all Beethoven’s string quartets performed by a group who recorded all these quartets under the Camerata label (seven discs) in 2009. For the Shanghai Quartet’s 35th Anniversary, Beare’s International Violin Society has lent the group four superb instruments made by Goffriller, Guarneri, and Stradivari for this performance cycle.  

In conceiving the performance of this cycle, The Shanghai Quartet has often paired early and late compositions to offer listeners the arc of Beethoven’s development through contrasts. Last Sunday afternoon that was especially apparent with String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 #4 (1799), String Quartet in F major, Op. 18 #1 (1799), and the late String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826), Beethoven’s third from last quartet.

The Shanghai Quartet began with #4, which was actually Beethoven’s sixth quartet in order of composition, and often considered the best of his early quartets. The Shanghai Quartet ably captured the opening lightness of this innovative quartet which employs the sonata form instead of the traditional rondo. For this refreshingly optimistic work, Beethoven dispensed with a traditional slow movement. Here Beethoven was in sparkling good humor before the loss of his hearing. This quartet perhaps imitated the buoyancy of Mozart, yet managed to move beyond Mozart’s conception of Menuetto in the jaunty third movement through the use of suspension. In its day, the quartet was an announcement of a major new talent. Cellist Nicholas Tzavaras allowed two violins and one viola to float like sails in the wind above his keel.  

Op. 18 #1, Beethoven’s second in order of composition, was perhaps even more revolutionary in its witty humor. There are moments when the music halts, engaging drama for the audience as to whether the musicians will proceed. While this is a theatrical gimmick, it nonetheless succeeds, and its success owes its surpassing effect to the simultaneous timing of the performers to instantaneously resume playing together in unified harmony –The Shanghai Quartet managed to achieve this magic with seamless, coordinated rhythm. One felt viscerally that there was electric magic in the air and the chief magician was violinist Weigang Li, who not only lead the quartet in this number, but articulated some marvelous sounds on the violin that I’ve never heard before.

After intermission, they resumed with Op. 131, Beethoven’s last large-scale composition. The Shanghai Quartet began with the opening fugue and as if on cue the heavens poured moisture and roared electricity with two shuddering booms as if to reify the fugue. This nearly forty minute slow, meditative quartet in seven movements appears to be punctuated by placid, redolent memory fragments adjacent to a somber contemplation of last things. One feels that this is somehow a retrospective summation of life in twilight glow. Honggang Li on viola and Yi-Wen Jiang on violin remained central to articulating this mood of a mellow, resigned pathos bursting with refulgent glow. Antonin Dvořák drew much inspiration from this quartet for his last works.

While the audience, so appreciative of the impressive unity of this performance, demanded two bows in the first half of the filled concert hall, the enthusiastic and exultant crowd demanded three bows at the conclusion. People walked with lighter gait.

This concert was a transcendent experience. And it remains marvelous that there are three more all-Beethoven quartets to go in this Beethoven marathon at Music Mountain.