The fortunate audience at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Sunday was blessed by the radiant day and the rewarding program from the Shanghai Quartet with pianist Wendy Chen.
The sun still high at 5, the Shanghai opened the program with Beethoven’s A Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 5, playing with a youthful vigor entirely apposite for a young composer. The first movement was a skillful study in contrasts: forceful and whispering, earthy and refined. The minuet second movement didn’t disdain the galant dance, but also featured harmonic surprises and the sly humor of misplaced accents. The slow movement has a lovely main theme, first stated in warm, maternal sixths. The set of five variations that follow puts the theme through some quite different permutations, with the players responding in kind, e.g., singing tone in the initial statement, lean and legato in the quietly polyphonic fourth variation, and almost percussively boisterous in the peasant-dance fifth before subsiding to a tranquil conclusion. The final movement begins with an impressive display of wonderfully synchronized dexterity at very rapid tempo (it’s marked simply Allegro). Further in, some turbulent chromaticism became murky at this pace when coupled with a fortissimo dynamic and (paradoxically) very marcato articulation. After these whirlwinds, Beethoven unexpectedly winds down to a serene ending, sweetly rendered here.
Wendy Chen took the stage with Brahms’s Waltzes, Op. 39, which are somewhat better-known in their original for four-hand version. But it was the composer who made the transcription, and only once in a while does one who has played the duets miss the opulence of texture four hands can provide. Although the program stated “selections from” the waltzes, Chen in fact played all 16. They should be a kaleidoscope of colors, moods, tempi, and textures, but on this occasion dynamics below forte were rare (often compounded by heavy pedaling), many tempi were uncomfortably fast, and her rubatos were often on a scale that might have made Rachmaninoff blush. Shalin Liu Performance Center is an intimate venue, and its Steinway concert grand must not be played as if it were in Royal Albert Hall. In the tender final two waltzes Chen did give some genuinely lovely playing in the tender final two waltzes, but by then my reaction was more relief than enchantment.
Like the Brahms, the Souvenirs of Samuel Barber comprise a set of dances (though of different types) written originally for four hands and later arranged by the composer for two. Chen performed the penultimate of the six, “Hesitation Tango,” with strong rhythmic profile and convincing style (it didn’t hurt that she sported glittering stiletto heels). The wrenching dynamic contrasts and rubatos that had been so foreign to Brahms were effective here. There was even a bit of choreography when Chen’s left lower leg occasionally kicked up to emphasize the beat. The witty, sexy little ending caused a chuckle to ripple through the audience.
After intermission, the forces joined to reveal a hidden treasure, Frank Bridge’s Quintet for Piano and Strings. Perhaps because his music doesn’t neatly fit the two predominating categories in pre-World War I England—the imperial grandeurs of Elgar or the folk-music-based inspirations of Vaughan Williams—Bridge’s star has risen and fallen with musical fashion. The piano quintet is a magnificent piece of work—its first version was completed when the composer was 25, to be consolidated from four movements to three some eight years later, in 1912. While Bridge may have admired the craftsmanship of Brahms and Fauré, his harmonies more often have the savor of the late French Romantics, Ernest Chausson especially coming to mind.
The quintet commences with a dark oracular pronouncement in octaves from the first violin and cello. When the other instruments join, they only add to the foreboding, particularly the rumbling of the piano’s left hand. Bridge is thinking symphonically despite the smaller form, and the players were well-attuned to this. The orchestral piano part’s arpeggios span the strings’ full complement of registers nearly simultaneously; Chen gauged just how much sound she could produce before she would have drowned out her fellows; the quartet, for its part, expertly rode the great waves of piano sound and balanced well, whether supplying melody or support. The movement ended with a hypnotic thinning out and a dark but calm final chord.
The middle movement is an uncommon ABA structure (two Adagio ma non troppos flanking an Allegro con brio). The outer sections were balm with their silken legato and exquisitely beautiful solos by each artist successively. These A sections made a fine contrast with the central B section, something of a tarantella in whirling excitement and rhythmic precision.
There is some resemblance (likely coincidental) between the overwrought beginning of the quintet’s final movement and that of the corresponding movement in the Ravel quartet; Bridge’s is further intensified by wild piano arpeggios. When the melodrama settles back somewhat, we hear elements of the previous movements mixed together and new material added. Though Bridge’s superior gift for soaring melody is never absent, conventional, if colorful chords can give way without warning to strange, unstable harmonies, and then, just as suddenly revert. When the great final D-major victory arrives, it has been both well-prepared and well-earned. May the Shanghai Quartet and Wendy Chen continue to proselytize so brilliantly for the superb chamber works of the unduly neglected Frank Bridge.