With dazzling virtuosity and versatility, the Shanghai Quartet presented a varied program Saturday night as part of the Rockport Music Festival. Sporting summer white jackets, the group played music of Schubert, Beethoven, Penderecki, and Zhou Long. (Disclosure: Over a decade ago I studied at Montclair State University, where the Shanghai are in residence. Not a string major, I nevertheless took in every concert they gave, so I had some pretty elevated expectations when I arrived.)
Aside from abundant technique, the most valuable and rarest quality the Shanghai possess is an uncanny ability not only to produce a variety of sounds but also to evoke a variety of sound worlds, and invariably to find the perfect textural mixture to realize a composer’s intentions. Schubert does not sound like Beethoven, nor Long like Penderecki. The Shanghai found ways to make it all work.
The opening and closing of the concert epitomized this ability to construct an essay, coherent and distinct, appropriate and revealing. The first piece was Schubert’s Quartettsatz, D.703. Though composed 14 years after the Beethoven Razumovsky (Opus 59 no. 3) that closed the evening, Schubert’s 1820 universe sounded more crystalline, more graceful, ‘perfected’ in a Mozartean sense. The transparency of texture and clarity of line, coupled with the effortless elegance of Schubert’s gestures and phrases, made this work, which can sound like chiseled marble, more like polished alabaster.
The Shanghai also excel in interpreting Chinese composers, understandably—this, and that creative versatility, were on display during Zhou Long’s Song of the Ch’in, from 1982. Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer for his opera Madame White Snake, Long melds traditional Chinese sound-shapes within Western idioms in a convincingly crafted way, avoiding pastiche and empty effect. Here the quartet as a whole embodied the sounds and ethos of the near-mythical Chinese instrument the ch’in. Instrument of sages and poets, the ch’in is a type of fretless tabletop dulcimer with a range of pitches and timbres at the performer’s fingertips. As one might imagine, a menagerie of pizzicati, slides, vibrato and straight tones were used to set the mood, but as the piece progressed, inventive and beautiful melodies crept in and out of the spotlight. Most prominent among the voices was the viola, whose supple strains were animated by Honggang Li.
Before intermission, the foursome embarked on another expedition into sound-worlds, this time involving languages all spoken at one time or another by the same composer. Penderecki’s third string quartet, Leaves of an Unwritten Diary, was written in 2008, a half-century after his first two works in the genre. While the turbulent 1960s are over, a different set of troubles and desires permeate this work. Again the viola dominates, leading the foursome into a Vivace duly demonic but also uniquely Polish, a kind of foil to Shostakovich, lavishing its non-Russianness. In turn poignant and grotesque, the one-movement work remained nonsentimental and earnest. A central viola recitativo seemed the musical equivalent of words in tortured sentences. A disembodied atmospheric space yielded inevitably to a menacing ritornello, until the whole thing ended midsentence. The Shanghai’s mastery of this work is to be expected, as they participated in its commissioning through Montclair State’s Peak Performances, along with the University of Virginia, and worked with the composer on the premiere.
Beethoven’s third Razumovsky concluded. The group navigated the ambiguous opening section of the work with expert instincts for melding textures, although there were some minor intonation issues. These largely disappeared by the effervescent Allegro, although even here the texture at times bordered on thick, requiring too much labor to propel it forward. The ever-present cello pizzicati in the Andante might have been a bit overdone, but the movement came off with good-natured warmth. Whatever small problems might have been holding the cork in the champagne were completely removed by the Menuetto, which sparkled with perfectly unified articulations and impeccable intonation. The finale bubbled with the energy and expectation of a child opening Christmas presents. At a breakneck tempo of 160 (there’s an app for checking), the movement popped from measure one to the grand final cadence. Watching the players trading solos like rockstars, one imagines Beethoven proud.
For an encore, the group played one of the many arrangements of Chinese folksongs that second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang has written. The Shepherd’s Song’s gently rolling chords and plaintive melody brought the evening to a peaceful close.