The Shanghai Quartet returned to the Rockport Chamber Music Festival with its distinct brand of unstoppable drive. Amidst two Beethoven quartets, Barber’s Opus 11 stood strong at the hands of these four artists whose own convictions about making music were made known in no secretive ways. Always evident was Shanghai’s purview—where full focus aimed at outward expression. And therein lays its strengths as well as its shortcomings.
The program opened with an early period work of Beethoven, his Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18 No. 6. Its youthful happiness resounded via Shanghai who took no time in filling up the Shalin Liu Performance Center with its full-bodied sound. Beethoven’s attachment for contrast became Shanghai’s. Big, and I do mean big, contrasts were in order. Their ensuing Adagio ma non troppo took more and more to a spelling out, no guessing course of action.
Shanghai’s driving rhythm lent itself fairly well to the Scherzo Allegro, with its own jolly missteps and crazy off-beats. A true respite showed up in the simple chordal opening of the fourth movement, La Malinconia. For this melancholy passage Beethoven wrote “Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza” (This piece is to be played with the greatest delicacy). Toward the end of Allegretto quasi Allegro mystery almost set in.
A feather in Shanghai’s cap had to be the placement on the program of the String Quartet in B Minor Op. 11 by Samuel Barber. Using the same first-movement form as Beethoven most always did, Barber at times could be caught shadowing the German master. But at other times, Barber would find his American voice. Here and there, though, I found myself resisting Shanghai’s take.
More and more, though, Shanghai revealed this early Barber in new light. Molto allegro e appassionato assumed an ever so bold and urgent meaning, American toughness with a slight German afterglow. The well-known, if not overplayed, Adagio felt fresh enough. This was due in particular to the cello’s singing rather than chanting, emoting rather than meditating. No surprise that the tempo did not stall, yet the climax did not quite feel real.
The very short final movement, with which Barber had struggled, resumed with the initial passionate statement of the quartet. Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violins, Honggang Li, viola, and Nicholas Tzavaras, cello, immediately took to their feet, the audience a bit slow on its part to realize that was the end of the Barber. It was an odd moment.
A middle period work of Beethoven, his Quartet in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, “Razumovsky,” the first of three commissioned by Prince Andrey Razumovsky, closed the program. Thème Russe: Allegro marks the concluding movement as a tribute to the dedicatee, the Russian ambassador to Vienna. Sustaining a high level of precision, Shanghai Quartet always knit tightly.
Valuing outwardness, Shanghai left breadth out of and ferocity too much in the picture. Even before the transition to the second theme of the opening sonata-allegro movement, Shanghai had ratcheted up the dynamics, leaving little decibel room with which to play. The “wrong notes” Beethoven slyly slips in scherzo style in Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando, sailed by like the wind, virtually unnoticed.
By halfway through the “Razumovsky,” fatigue had set in. Something from inner spaces, reflective modes, or moods prevailing over thought-through gestures was desperately needed.
A full house of enthusiasts bombarded the Shanghai for an encore. Drained, I could not stay for it. I guess I’ll have to take my hat off to the concert-goers, most of whom remained.
The Quartet currently serves as Ensemble-in-Residence at Montclair State University and the visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in China.