The third concert of Rockport Music’s 34th opening weekend, celebrated at the five-year-old Shalin Liu Center, continued the recognition of the 20th anniversary of artistic director David Deveau; he presided Sunday at the keyboard as an inspirational goad to the venerable Shanghai String Quartet in Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. Freed from the seriousness and order of their usual quartet repertoire, and with second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang sitting it out, the three remaining members of the foursome, violinist Weigang Li, violist Hongang Li, and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, seemed to bloom under the care and feeding of Deveau, whose tone was lapidary, flexible, courtly and white hot, often conjuring a cimbalom. The last gypsy rondo/ presto never fails to bring down the house. And one can imagine that Deveau’s aside to Weigan Li before it started was, “Take no prisoners.” This quartet even inspired the sometimes dour Arnold Schoenberg to orchestrate it shortly after he got to Hollywood.
Quartets seem to plan this Brahms backwards from the last movement. Once they decide how much to press forward in the presto, they can scale the preceding three movements to match. In this case the presto induced frenzy in the sold-out crowd, ever pleased to have Deveau as its titulaire. The string threesome did not always know when to dominate and were not quite equal partners in the give and take, but when Deveau opened the throttle, the collective revs synchromeshed.
It must be mentioned again that the Shalin Liu seems to absorb high frequencies in such a way to make even the most outgoing violinists sound dainty. That syndrome is not audible on stage where the tones resonate evenly across the spectrum, according to reports. That acoustic mismatch might also account for some of the seeming flatness in pitch in the upper ranges of the violin, especially notable in the many octaves and unisons of the Brahms. I will be interested to hear how the balance fares on the celebratory program WCRB will air next Sunday evening.
The Brahms begins with the piano’s always black and white seeming initial statement; the passionate response comming this time in full measure from cellist Tzavaras. By the time all four voices join the affray we are no longer in Kansas. In the quickening Intermezzo: Allegro, Deveau’s luminous commentary came with a lilt and pulse that were sometimes answered with a bit of squareness yet the vessel ultimately plied the waters of Sandy Bay under full sail. The noble Andante unreeled a bit stodgily and dry-eyed; throbbing vibrato did not always equal passion. But ultimately there were power and excitement sufficient to satisfy all, though I could not help recalling a memorable concert 25 or so years ago when Deveau, along with regular colleagues violinist Bela Keyes, cellist Michael Reynolds and violist Marcus Thompson played all three of Brahms’s piano quartets in 90 degree heat at Kresge. That immortal outing set my standard for these works.
Haydn’s Op. 77 String Quartet in G Major opened the concert in a show of the Shanghai’s most enduring qualities. They gauged Haydn’s wit very carefully, but not over-analytically. We could admire the classical proportions, well matched tone and unanimity of ensemble. No less could come from a foursome which has flourished since 1983. Nor was the approach icily intellectual. Haydn favored peasant dances and beer halls as much as Brahms did half a century later, and the Shanghai generously shared four foaming pints. If there were no surprises in this Haydn, there were no disappointments either.
At the center of the afternoon, the quartet relaxed into three traditional Chinese songs arranged for this ensemble by violinist Wen Jiang. The Shanghai’s recording of the entire set of 24 [here] is a popular installment in the group’s extensive discography, currently standing at 34. Yao Dance began the set with an almost Hebraic intensity, developing through variations to a hoedown. A Dvořákesque interlude mingled sorrow and joy with some snappy alternations of meter before closing in a lovely, diminishing harmonic.
Shepherd Song could have been a nostalgic Tin Pan Alley ballade polished to a high modern style. The treatment stretched the materials somewhat as the simple melody found itself clothed in Western concert dress, but it was never less than warmly projected and received. The last installment, Harvest Celebration, began with emphatic tremoli before calming into a rhapsodic violin solo in the manner of The Lark Ascending. Then, almost before we knew it, we were transported by hayride to a lively country fiddling finish. All smiles, the players ended the short first half in triumph.
But it was the Brahms we had come to hear, it was the piece that confirmed again for the loyal subscribers what Rockport Music accomplishes so reliably year after year.