Shanghai String Quartet at Chamberfest ’08 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, July 27, 2008.Chalmers United, Ottawa.

From the energetic, buoyant theme introduced solo by the first violin and in duet with the cello, we have no idea why this Beethoven String Quartet in B Flat Major Op. 18, No.6 is subtitled “La Malinconia (Melancholy)”. The second theme, restricted to a few repeated notes, hints at the awareness of grief Beethoven will pour out in the late Quartets twenty years hence. From the start, we are also aware of the fine flowing sound, the controlled and tender touch of these superb players from Shanghai. The exceptional collaboration of first violin and cello is also notable in the ‘Adagio’ during the third presentation of the austere theme. Shanghai’s playing of the rhythmically complex ‘Scherzo’ is unified, and energetic without undue force, and its conclusion, though abrupt, is gentle.

It is the fourth movement from which the composition takes its name. The Shanghai play it, as Beethoven directed, “with the greatest delicacy.”  The opening tones sound as if they are played by a distant horn. The funereal tones that develop could be bagpipes that impart the downward pull of gravity, an effect enhanced by the cello. What is most notable about this movement is the frequent alternation of gloomy passages and sudden upswings of mood in the gaiety of waltz time. This alternation is perhaps the signature of Beethoven’s “Malincolia”.

Cellist Nicholas Tzavaras introduced the Canadian premiere of Chen Yi’s “Path of Beauty” commissioned by the quartet. Originally a seven movement piece for male choir and string quartet, the four movements here are based successively on: 1.Chinese gibberish. 2. Pizzicato allusions to inflections of various Chinese languages. 3. A secluded melody. 4. A very challenging score with the enigmatic title  “The Dancing Ink.”  With one exception, the music seemed built on Chinese principles that communicate by silences, stacatto-slidey passages, and cacophony, a sense of multi-dimensional human space. The third movement balanced a recognizable melody on violins with an accompanying harmonic line almost fugal in character in the lower strings, all played slowly and building a richly textured sense of the fullness of joy.

Brahms’ second string quartet, the “A Minor, Op.51, No. 2”, closed out the evening with its outstanding polyphonic homage to Bach. The arc-like opening theme, which includes three notes of the composer’s musical motto (F-A-E), is a long, diffuse, varied and richly textured line played as if in the tones of an organ. The second movement has the first violin singing a lyrical theme, wavy and amorphous, floating like a series of delicate brushstrokes over the insistent urging of the lower strings. The total effect is heart-rending. The most distinctive theme is in the “Finale”. Here Brahms indulges his fondness for Hungarian Gypsy dance rhythms, pregnant pauses, playful harmonics, and melting transitions, which accelerate to a wild, celebratory conclusion.

There was a standing ovation rewarded by an encore, the second movement of Ravel’s “Quartet.”

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