The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts presented the Shanghai Quartet with pianist Hung-Kuan Chen in concert at Jordan Hall on Saturday 21 January at 8pm. The innovative program spanned Beethoven, Penderecki, and Brahms; a devoted audience braved the newly fallen snow and enjoyed the reward of a fine evening of music.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1. The members of the Shanghai Quartet produced a cohesive sound with a seamless blending of voices, especially between the two violins, and wonderfully matched phrasings. This performance brought out the melancholic side of Beethoven; even the Scherzo and Allegro finale seemed marked by a sadness not often associated with Beethoven. I heard the Beethoven in a new way as the Shanghai Quartet plumbed different depths to this work. At the same time, their interpretative choice created a more coherent series of connections and interactions between the three pieces on the program.
Following the Beethoven, the Shanghai Quartet performed Krzystof Penderecki’s String Quartet No.3 “Leaves from an Unwritten Diary.” This 2008 commission celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Shanghai Quartet and the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday, and was here given its Boston première. As announced from the stage before the performance, this quartet invokes for the first time in this composer’s œuvre a Romanian melody Penderecki heard as a child when his father played it on violin. This melody recurs in different guises, and provides continuity to the work as a whole. Written in one movement, this quartet features a prominent viola line, reminiscent of some of William Walton’s writing for the viola. In this performance the viola part was beautifully performed by Honggang Li. The cello serves as a rhythmic motor, especially in the outer parts of this work. The middle section is a lovely nocturne, sonorous and evanescent. The work concludes with the Romanian folk melody played in stopped harmonics by the second violin; Yi-Wen Jiang gave a sensitive and haunting rendition of this conclusion to the work
After intermission, pianist Hung-Kuan Chen joined the Shanghai Quartet for a delightfully nuanced and well-matched performance of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. The Allegro non troppo opened with insistence and definition, then came the seamless and soaring melody with the compelling cross-rhythms. We heard all the drama and a wide range of emotions inherent in this movement. The Andante, un poco adagio was touching and tender in its sweetness. The Scherzo: Allegro took on the character of a march – although I pity anyone who dared try to march to this movement with all its rhythmic modulations. The Finale opened quietly, in a ruminative vein, which then gave way to an animated, lilting passage recalling parts of the first and third movements (as well as the Penderecki quartet heard earlier on the program). The Shanghai Quartet with Hung-Kuan Chen rose to the challenges and easily surmounted the obstacles this movement presents, and so concluded an incisive performance and concert.
Regrettably, a subset of the audience insisted on clapping between each movement throughout the concert. Before the Brahms Finale Weigang Li, first violinist of the Shanghai Quartet, turned and shushed the audience. The ill-timed, even if well-earned, applause interfered with the larger musical narratives traced by the Shanghai Quartet and Hung-Kuan Chen. Happily the musicians surmounted this challenge as well.