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Shanghai Quartet and a Taste of China

Two Wednesdays ago (April 20), the Shanghai Quartet and huqin virtuoso Wang Guowei stopped by the Freer/Sackler Gallery to present a concert of Chinese repertoire and Brahms. Second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang arranged and recomposed several Chinese songs and traditional melodies for string quartet, and the result is his piece China Song from 2002. Since he emphasized and introduced Western elements to these songs, they sound more like a 19th-century faux-chinois quartet by a hopelessly melodic French composer. The recognizable Chinese melodic progressions and the wailing tone of the Chinese fiddle are always present, but only as shapes swimming in a sea of Western classical harmony. That's hardly a criticism—I don't know Chinese music well enough and can't say how much of the original was left anyway—but actually a compliment. Maybe it was like Chinese food in America: inauthentic but palatable. Every piece had a different flavor, and they all had a certain orchestral character about them. The third song ("A Busker's Little Tune") had me think of a possible music school assignment: compose a short string quartet movement on this (the "Busker's") tune, and do it in the style of Bartók.

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L.v.Beethoven, String Quartetts opp.59 2 & 3
Shanghai Quartet

After these songs, the quartet (who recently starred in the soundtrack of Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda) had convinced Wang Guowei to play a few solo works ("since he's here already..."). Both, the variation on a song and Listening to the Pine, a folk song by a famous street musician from the 1940s, were beautifully played on the huqin, the Chinese fiddle, which looks like a Coke can on a stick with a string and a bow playing it. While the former piece was more calm and melodic, the latter used the entire dynamic range of the instrument and was rather animated.

The 1997 Fiddle Suite for Huqin and String Quartet by Chen Yi showcases three different types of huqin, the instrument the Chinese adopted from the central Asian tribes and subsequently made their own. The work is best described in Mr. Chen's own words, lifted straight from Susan Halpern's program notes:

The first movement showcases the original sweet sound of the erhu (the timbre is like the human voice). The second movement is a realization of an eleventh-century poem by Su Shi, and the original Chinese characters of the poem are reprinted above the huqin melody in the score. It imitates the exaggerated reciting voice in Chinese operatic style, while the quartet plays mysterious textures to create the atmosphere, to express the parting sorrow in the poem. The third is influenced by a Beijing opera tune (the fiddle is screamingly high), while the strings sound like a percussion group. Its image came from the dancing ink on paper in Chinese calligraphy.

Needless to say, the suite was far more "Chinese" sounding than the China Song arrangements. The last movement's end, though, was as charged and fiery a finale as could be found in a DSCH symphony. Dedicated and polished playing only added to the splendor of the first half.

Brahms is a good way to measure the quality of a string quartet (the performers, not the work), since Brahms's quartets need to be performed impeccably and with plenty of gusto in order to convince. The A-Minor Quartet No. 2, op. 51, no. 2, is no exception. The complex polyphony of the first movement demands full concentration from the opening notes on. The many strands that Brahms spins into that Allegro non troppo are dazzling. To find direction amid all these impressions is difficult and if there is a common or thematic idea in it, I fail to find it. I still enjoy it, as I do the discernable, recurring melody that may serve as an anchor for the ears. The Andante moderato is dead-serious, as though "String Quartet" and fun were two polar opposites. The shadow of Beethoven was looming too large, still... and Brahms reacted differently to it than, say, Schubert, whose generally sunny attitude in his late quartets was not even impeded by syphilis.

Even if the finale has good moments, the Shanghai Quartet's adequate performance was not enough for me to warm up to it. A little bit like those works go a long way and should I happen to have a craving, the ABQ's first recording on EMI provides everything I could wish for. The second movement of Ravel's quartet was pure contrast after the somber Brahms. Pure joy next to lyricism: excitement coupled with mellifluous melody and all packed into a couple minutes made it the perfect encore.

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