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Shanghai Quartet on Magic Mountain

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 8th, 2018

Weigang Li, Yi-Wen Jiang, Nicholas Tzavaras, founder Honggang Li

The Shanghai Quartet performed chamber concert # 5 of Beethoven’s complete cycle of string quartets. They opened with String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130. By 1825 Beethoven had been stone deaf for quite some time and this quartet appears to evoke his predicament with melancholic, stoic resignation while his health was in severe decline with only two years of his life before him. It is as if Beethoven was searching for an explanation of his peculiar fate yet could find none, which makes me recall Samuel Beckett’s line “You Must Go On, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On” from his 1954 novel The Unnamable, the last novel of his trilogy.

From the first note violinist Weigang Li created an air of lyrical fragility while the bow of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras ground with a somber, shadowing rumination into the unknown future. The Adagio-Allegro plunged into echoes from the faraway Land of Why.  In the following Presto Honggang Li on viola comforted us with a note of hopeful continuum while in the succeeding German dance tune Yi-Wen Jiang on second violin offered a hint on the great comedy of life with its brutal ironies. The famous Cavatina Adagio aria was a cri de coeur articulated by each instrument in turn. The intense emotional impact of this aria—a favorite of all Beethoven fans—dramatizes the plight of the artist clinging to hope despite the loss of what appears reasonable, but not the loss of artistic endurance journeying onward in the face of immense difficulty.

Beethoven originally wrote a Grand Fugue for the Finale, but his publisher thought it was too much upon the heels of the Cavatina and sensibly requested a different ending. Beethoven quickly agreed and wrote an Allegro Finale that offers reversal: a greater vision of hope, as if Beethoven is taking us into an Otherworld. It should come as no surprise that the musical motifs of all the preceding movements are more tightly wound into this eloquent Finale of Eternal Spring.

During intermission my companion spoke to a lady from Hillsdale who had been the elementary school cello teacher of Nicholas Tzavaras; his mother, violinist Roberta Guaspar, was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the film Music of the Heart (1999), a movie about keeping music alive amid inner city schools in Harlem. This lady was so happy that one of her students had become such a successful musician. How many teachers follow the success of their students?

Beethoven’s earlier String Quartet, Op. 59, no. 1 is certainly a sunnier quartet. This is the first of the three quartets commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to the Vienna Court. Employing Russian folk tunes, Beethoven significantly advanced his techniques as he went beyond Haydn’s quartets. In the opening Allegro movement the cello dominates with its lower register and Tzavaras infused the motif with noble passion while Yi-Wen Jiang on second violin and Honggang Li on viola soared above with rhythmic finesse as they gently lifted into higher register. This startling backwards approach of using the lower register and working upward allows the first violin to be held in suspenseful abeyance until the final coda.

I have a theory about this unusual structure from lower to higher. The last movement playfully examines how to end the work; various heavier to ever lighter solutions are proposed, while the audience delights in the humor of exploring higher and higher versions for a conclusion in a work that began and worked with the lower register. We cannot forget the Russian folkloric motif. I think the last movement is like a Russian Matryoshka doll: heavier musical resolutions are discarded one by one in favor of higher resolutions, until one arrives at the high cry of a baby—that delicious high register held by Weigang Li in his soaring cadenza (which recalls symmetrically the parallel of the cello’s opening register). We hear the first born child of Beethoven’s employment of Russian folk music. And what more delight could Beethoven give to both his patron and audience: the birth cry of his first Russian “child” surrounded by whimsical humor and genial jubilation?

The audience leapt up with fierce applause to demand three long bows. There is only one more Beethoven concert left in this extraordinary performance series at Gordon Hall on the Magic Mountain. That final celebratory concert with the Shanghai Quartet is September 9 at 3 pm.