Sunday afternoon, July 4, at the Maverick Sauna, otherwise known as the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, NY, the Shanghai Quartet gave an impressive exhibition of string quartet unanimity in action. The concert opened with a genuine novelty: the Novelletten of Frank Bridge, 12 minutes of French Impressionism from a composer in his mid-20s who was still feeling his way. (It was written the same year that Bridge played in the British premiere of Debussy’s String Quartet.) There was nothing wrong with this pleasant music, which might have put the name of its composer into the minds of listeners with positive associations. But it was very easy listening, from a composer whose later works (including four string quartets) are generally both more challenging and more valuable. The music gave the Shanghai Quartet a fine opportunity to demonstrate its startlingly homogeneous sound and ensemble. This is not the only good way for a string quartet to sound, and I often prefer more individuality of sound among the players, leading to more contrast in a performance. But in this excellent performance the sameness of sound quality was certainly not a problem.
Last week I complained that a Schumann String Quartet, Op. 41, No. 3 was the low point of a concert by the Tokyo String Quartet. This week, the first of that opus quartet, No. 1, was the highpoint of the Shanghai Quartet’s program. Maybe writing three large string quartets in one month taxed even Schumann’s imagination, leading to a relative lack of inspiration in the last. The first is highly expressive, well structured, engrossing music. I found the Shanghai Quartet’s playing sometimes a trifle polite, especially in the opening movement. The music seems to invite even greater fervency. But considering the mid-90s temperature of the hall, I should not complain, for this was an excellent, well-balanced performance of music that’s not exactly “Top 40.”
However, Dvorák’s Quartet in F, Op. 96, the “American,” is “Top 40.” It’s a wonderful piece, but not wonderful enough to fairly cast the entire remainder of Dvorák’s quartet output into oblivion. Sure, this was the Fourth of July. But it would be so enlivening to have one of Dvorák’s other string quartet masterpieces, of which there are plenty.
As Americans go, this was a pretty good version. The rough, woody sound of the opening viola solo served notice that the Shanghai Quartet was willing to dispense with its sweet tone when necessary. So there was greater variety of sound in this performance than in the others. And the dynamic contrasts in the third movement were more powerful than in any of the other music on the program. There was a little more caution in the finale than I like, but considering that it was the end of a concert played in uncomfortable heat, I won’t complain. I do wish we could hear some different Dvorák Quartets at Maverick, though. The concert drew a large, highly appreciative audience.