A refitted Shanghai Quartet brings warmth, drama to the National Museum of Asian Art

Sun Feb 14, 2021 at 12:14 pm
The Shanghai Quartet performed a streamed program aired Saturday at the National Museum of Asian Art. Photo: Sophie Zhai

The coronavirus has altered many musical traditions, but it has not fully eliminated some of them. On Saturday night the National Museum of Asian Art held its annual event honoring the Lunar New Year in a virtual format. The Shanghai Quartet, regulars on the Freer Gallery of Art’s concert series for many years, performed an hour-long program recorded at the Tianjin Juilliard School, where the musicians joined the faculty last fall.

The group excelled in a luxuriously warm slow movement of their Haydn selection, the String Quartet in G Minor. Intonation and ensemble jelled exquisitely throughout, giving the sense of a single well-oiled machine rather than four individuals. In the first and third movements the quartet raced past some of Haydn’s understated humor. When they took a bit more time, as in the major-mode closing theme of the first movement or the minor-mode trio in the third, the results were lovely.

First violinist Weigang Li cleanly grasped the brilliant sixteenth-note runs in the finale, a rollicking movement that gave this piece its “Rider” nickname. Where Haydn called on him to leap into the stratosphere for repeated-note climaxes, he did so with agility and accuracy. The group brought a marvelously witty approach to the end of the development of this movement, where Haydn clumsily searches around for the right home key center to begin the recapitulation

The group’s performance of Zhou Long’s Eight Folk Songs seemed even freer and more lush than their world premiere recording, from 1998. Long, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Madame White Snake, set these traditional Chinese tunes in a soup of Rachmaninoff sweetness. Cellist Nicholas Tzavaras wove an especially elegant melodic line in the second piece.

New second violinist Angelo Xiang Yu, who joined the Shanghai Quartet last fall, is fitting into the ensemble beautifully, with glossy solos on the theme in the fourth piece, the last one in perfectly tuned high flautando notes. The four musicians gave a hearty falsetto shout (“Yo-oh”) several times in the fifth piece, by far the most whimsical moment in this suite of charming, often nostalgic miniatures.

Yu replaces long-time second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang, who took over that position in 1994 from Honggang Li, who switched to viola. Although Jiang enjoyed a long and successful tenure, he left the quartet under a cloud after a social media controversy last spring. The circumstances of his departure, fueled by outrage in Chinese state media and elsewhere, are now the subject of a bitter legal dispute.

No trace of any rancor over their recent personnel change was evident in the quartet’s sound. The quartet gave Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 a big-boned, ultra-romantic reading, inaugurated by a resounding tutti strike on an E minor chord. Violist Honggang Li produced a husky tone on the anguished opening solo, setting the stage for a first movement of dramatic dynamic contrasts and sharp attacks.

Smetana wrote this quartet at the end of his life, at the start of a long physical decline, and described it as a recollection of his musical career, indicated by the programmatic title “From My Life.” The polka-like second movement recalls the composer’s early dance works and his own love of dancing. The four musicians spun the A section almost out of control with folksy rubato, contrasted by the violins’ boozy crescendo effects in the calmer trio.

The new second violinist sounded even brassier than the violist on this movement’s second theme, which Smetana indicates should be “like a trumpet.” The third movement, a tender recollection of the composer’s first love for the woman who became his wife, was expansive and marked by more luminous cello solos from Tzavaras, a lovely early Valentine. 

The two violins traded off contrapuntal lines expertly in the active, precise finale, which the composer said represented his successful incorporation of nationalist folk music. Suddenly, at the height of this career arc, there is a crash just as the movement reaches its triumphant coda. A whistling high E in the first violin represents something like the tinnitus that signaled to Smetana his impending deafness.

In the wake of this disaster, the quartet lingered over the composer’s reminiscences of the earlier movements before arriving at the ultrasoft E major conclusion. The violist, who opened the first movement, is now the last to come to rest, his restlessly oscillating line like the creative spirit still beating.

While the National Museum of Asian Art remains closed to the public for now, listeners can stream recordings from its concert series, including past performances by the Shanghai Quartet. asia.si.edu

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