in: Reviews

July 8, 2013

Shanghai Quartet’s 23rd Maverick Concert

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Playing at Maverick Concerts for the 23rd time in its 30 years of existence, the Shanghai Quartet performed three substantial quartets–Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Dvořák—with a welcome variety of approach and consistently satisfying musicianship.

I can remember hearing the Shanghai Quartet in its early years of touring the U.S. Like the early Tokyo Quartet, I found its performances too correct, perfect without being engaged or satisfying. Like the Tokyo Quartet, though, the Shanghai Quartet has matured and deepened. Its performance at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock on July 7th was both engaged and satisfying, without giving up any of the ensemble’s technical qualities.

Beethoven’s Quartet in G, Op. 18, No. 2, got off to a rather strange start, as first violinist Weigang Li slurred the opening theme instead of playing it clearly. This was obviously an interpretive choice rather than a technical failing, as Li played with admirable clarity throughout the remainder of the program, but it did sound odd to me. From that point on, though, the playing of all the ensemble members was well articulated, and the interpretation showed both the traditional quality of Beethoven’s writing and his radical innovations. I particularly liked the rough and ready playing of the finale, in which perfection of ensemble, while still satisfactory, came in second to the vigor of the music.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 6, in G, Op. 101, is not one of the most frequently played of that master’s string quartets. Maybe it should be. Maverick’s substitute host, composer and editor Russell Platt (twin brother of Music Director Alexander Platt) introduced the music as one of Shostakovich’s more genial works. But the air of subdued menace, which occasionally breaks out as overt danger, permeates this entire piece, and it was brought out consistently in the Shanghai Quartet’s powerful and idiomatic interpretation. The third movement, Lento, was very deep in its overt anguish, and the finale was quite scary. The reality of the composer’s life under a totalitarian dictator, of which Platt reminded us, seemed ever-present.

Obviously this is going to be a good summer, since I’ve now heard Dvořák’s Quartet No. 14, in A Flat, Op. 105, twice (previously in June by the Daedalus Quartet at Bard College) and the “American” not at all. Not that I dislike the “American,” but there are other Dvořák Quartets worth hearing and this is certainly one of them. The Shanghai Quartet showed its maturity of interpretation by adopting a very different style for its Dvořák playing. The ensemble tone was warmer than in either of the previous two works, and the rhythms were more flexible. The second movement furiant was dancy, and the slow movement was very sweet without being cloying. Dvořák’s large works don’t usually have the tightest construction in the world, so there’s always a danger that a less than ideally focused interpretation will leave them sounding episodic. That never happened during this excellent performance. The Daedalus’s playing was excellent too. That must mean this is already a good summer!

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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