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Shanghai Quartet Provides Delight at Music Mountain

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Sep 2nd, 2019

From left: Weigang Li, Todd Crow, Nicholas Tzavaras, Honggang Li

Last Sunday was the second consecutive day Shanghai Quartet played at Gordon Hall, Music Mountain. They opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in G major, Op. 18 #2 (1799). This is one of the most delightfully charming pieces Beethoven ever composed, this being most likely the chronological third in the series of six quartets from 1799 t0 1800. While a Classical quartet in form, there are hints of Romantic experimentation—especially the insertion of an allegro in the second movement Adagio. First violinist Weigang Li led the first movement Allegro with authoritative resonance that equaled the expertise of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras in subtlety and nuance during the second movement. Violist Honggang Li delivered beautiful tone in the third movement Scherzo with assistance from second violinist Yi-Wen Jian. Weigang Li’s violin in the fourth movement was most memorable as they raced toward a resounding conclusion.

This happy piece (before Beethoven began to lose his hearing) displayed his jocular side. To me the quartet appeared to be a meditation on wooing. The light and graceful first movement exhibited sexual yearning. The second movement Adagio sounded like it rose to a polite query for a dance, breaking into an Allegro waltz when the young couple took the dance floor. This unexpected break, then transition to dance might have been a concept gleaned from Haydn or Salieri, yet it displays a Romantic thrill of such deep feeling that it went beyond such influence. Concert program notes reported that such remarkable lightness of touch was the final product of great struggle that covered thirty-two notebook pages to husk and reveal the naked kernel. The hopeful, intoxicating unity of the Finale convinced (at least me) that Beethoven would find a likely love mate, but this, alas, was never to be the fate of such a solitary and uncompromising genius. And yet the genius of tremendous optimism was forcefully articulated.

Novelletten (1904) by Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten’s eccentric private tutor and the instructor of Ralph Vaughan Williams, was Bridge’s first string composition at the age of 25. The term Novelletten for piano compositions was coined by Robert Schumann in 1838 for Op.21. These eight pieces were inspired by Robert’s early infatuation with Clara Wieck. In a letter to Clara, Robert wrote: “Fianncée, you appear in all possible places and positions in the Novelletten and there are other irresistible things about you there … I maintain: one could only write Novelletten if one knew eyes such as yours and had touched lips like yours.” At least that was what Robert wanted Clara to feel about what he had written. Despite the snubbing of Clara’s father of Franz Liszt, Robert Schuman and Franz became great friends in 1840; Liszt astonished Robert by playing the Novelletten series “divinely, so different from what I had imagined.”

I have seen the claim made that one cannot understand Britten’s work unless one understands the work of Bridge, and vice-versa. Bridge’s early quartet sounded awash in Brahms-like Romance for a secret other. Perhaps, like Beethoven, this records an infatuation ending with frustration. Since 1990 there has been a revival of Bridge’s work and this quartet offers the revelation of early genius. The performance was meticulous and unified, yet in the end this sounded to me like an accomplished academic work from a bright graduate with great promise.

Johannes Brahms’ great Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26 (1861) followed intermission. The opening movement offers a series of variations on the theme of quest. The Poco Adagio records a timid, diffident passion. The brilliant sonata-like third movement with its string cannon appears to promise intellectual affinity and possible union. The sizzling fourth movement swells in wave-like erotic emotion which guest pianist Todd Crow persuasively inflected with a passionate declaration of unleashed Hungarian amor, finally concluding with apologetic Viennese politeness. Now that Robert Schumann had died, Brahms appears to be openly declaring his love for Clara. Clara was certainly impressed—as I was—yet she did not succumb to the advance, merely allowing the compliment that it was her favorite piece by Brahms. The unity of the performance astonished the audience which called for three bows. Rarely have the frustrations of hopeful love been so happily expressed.

This was the 90th birthday of Music Mountain and the 30th year of the Shanghai Quartet performing at Music Mountain. In 1988 Isaac Stern heard the Shanghai Quartet play in St. Petersburg and persuaded Nick Gordon to bring them over to the United States where they have flourished internationally while they are ensconced at Montclair State University in New Jersey. To celebrate these anniversaries, there was a small reception with refreshments after the concert.

Next Sunday at 3 pm the Daedalus Quartet with guest pianist Tanya Bannister will perform: J.S. BACH: Selections from “Art of the Fugue,” BWV 1080 (1742–50); BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 74 “Harp” (1809); ELGAR: Piano Quintet in A Minor, Op. 84 (1918).