Absolutely no complaints about the performances of the Shanghai Quartet at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock on Sunday will come from this writer. Everything was played splendidly. I do have some reservations about one of the pieces, though.
Frank Bridge’s claim to fame seems to be having taught Benjamin Britten. But Bridge’s music definitely deserves our attention without that connection. His relatively early Three (1904, when the composer was 25) finds the composer still completely settled in the romantic idiom from which he later escaped. And it’s not a masterpiece. But although clearly late-romantic music, it doesn’t sound exactly like anyone else and it certainly holds the attention, especially in a lush, passionate performance like the one the Shanghai Quartet gave us.
Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, in F Minor, Op. 80, is not only the last of his string quartets, it’s also the last music he wrote. If I’m correct, it’s the only piece he composed between the sudden death of his sister Fanny, which affected him profoundly, and his own death six months later. We don’t usually think of Mendelssohn as a tragic composer, but there’s no other way to describe this heartfelt and affecting expression of the composer’s grief. If I weren’t inclined to avoid superlatives I’d be tempted to say that it’s Mendelssohn’s greatest work. It’s certainly up there in his stratosphere. I’ve heard other performances of this music that tried to make it sound more “Mendelssohnian” and less heavy, but not this one. The Shanghai Quartet really dug in, even momentarily sacrificing some precision for passion in the coda of the first movement. The ensemble expressed an almost orchestral sound across a huge dynamic range with strong contrasts emphasized throughout. Recognizing how special this performance was, the audience gave it a standing O at intermission.
I don’t dislike Edvard Grieg, not at all. But I do consider this fine and original composer as essentially a miniaturist. Even his popular piano concerto shows some signs of effort in holding together a longish span. (One pianist I know told me he’d never play it again; “I can’t stand that endless progression of eight-bar phrases,” he said.) Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27, seems to me a deeply flawed work even while it displays the folk-influenced style of the composer at his best. The opening theme of the first movement is, frankly, dumb, and shows the excessive repetition which obtains throughout. If you’ve never heard this quartet before you’d likely still recognize its composer from the numerous familiar phrases scattered throughout. The themes seem to me poured into pre-existing forms into which they don’t fit comfortably; the Intermezzo is particularly padded with repetitions and the Finale seems cobbled together from diverse elements. Don’t tell any of this to the Shanghai Quartet, though. They advocated fervently and “sold” it to the audience, which responded with great enthusiasm. Forgive me if I have to stand aside but I admired the performance much more than the music.