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2.5.06

Shanghaied at the Freer

available at Amazon
China Song, Shanghai Quartet


available at Amazon
Ravel/Bridge, String Quartets, Shanghai Quartet
The Shanghai Quartet had been at the Freer Gallery before (Ionarts reviewed them last year), but I doubt they ever left as strong an impression as last Wednesday when they played Bartók’s first string quartet and the Ravel quartet in F major. The Bartók opens with the two violins playing the serioso part until cello and viola join in what is part fugue, part post-Wagnerian chromaticism. Counterpoint-heavy, there are plenty hints of resolution that the ears seek out, just without actually finding them. With the care the Shanghai Quartet players took rolling out their lines, executing them cleanly, aiming for passion through precise tension, there is beauty in that first movement not unlike in Berg’s Lyric Suite.

Soon enough, though, an earthier tone enters. Plenty rhythmic drive in later sections made the Lento excellent; the entire movement again being proof how much Bartók benefits from live performance. If the Shanghai Quartet was at times more ‘proper’ than fire-breathing, that didn’t mean that they could not or did not dig in deeply... as they did, for example, in the wilder Allegretto, bringing out the very best in every single musician. The clarity and sonority of every member’s tone, led by a great first violinist, repeatedly baffled. Dedication and precision abound, the mirthful Allegro vivace was quite simply (not exactly a technical term, but best describing it) awesome, ensuring that my favorite Bartók quartet is always the one I am hearing. (Lest anyone think that any Bartók performance can elicit similar feelings, it helps recalling the Calder Quartet’s performance from late January, showing that Bartók empathetically does not ‘play itself’.)

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Shanghai Quartet (Washington Post, April 28)
Ravel’s string quartet is a gem, and the audience’s appetite had been whetted for it. The beauty of the Shanghai Quartet’s playing produced first shimmering, flittering rapture, then a plucked chase, an ethereal stroll, a ferocious final argument. The group was not last year’s highlight of the Freer concert season but barring a ridiculously good Musicians from Marlboro III on May 9th, they certainly are going to be this year’s. The program started with Yi-Wen Jiang’s 2002 arrangements of Chinese songs. These perfectly pleasant works were light and on occasion bubbly appetizers – half East, half West. The Shanghai Quartet consists of Weigang Li (1st violin), Yi-Wen Jiang (2nd violin), Honggang Li (viola), and Nicholas Tzavaras.

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