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Shanghai Quartet uneven, impersonal


The longeurs experienced at the Shanghai Quartet's appearance Sunday evening in the Shriver Hall series were partly the consequence of a less-than-stimulating program and partly because the players sounded somewhat below their best form.

The only unfamiliar work on the program was Zhou Long's "Poems from Tang," which consists of four movements that are actually short tone poems inspired by the works of four poets of China's Tang dynasty. In a program note, Zhou, a composer in his early 40s, explained that he has tried to combine "ancient Chinese and Western musical traditions in a coherent and personal statement."

On first hearing, however, it was hard to hear how these four disparate movements cohered and harder still to penetrate the opacity that prevented one from discerning what was "personal" in the composer's response to the poets of his native land. Zhou certainly knows how to write for stringed instruments -- the final movement generated energy (and interest) in a manner not dissimilar to those of the fast movements of the quartets of Shostakovich and Bartok. But too much of this listener's time was spent trying to be sympathetic to this music without succeeding in doing so.

Brahms' three string quartets, to this listener's taste, occupy a position near the bottom of the composer's chamber music output, and the Quartet in A Minor (opus 51, No. 2), which took all of the program's second half, seems much the weakest of them. Without the sweep and drama of the C Minor Quartet or the puckish humor of the B-flat, the A Minor Quartet seems so determined to achieve a plaintive, Schubertian nobility that it sounds utterly manufactured.

It is too much to expect any ensemble to make me warm up to Brahms' A Minor Quartet, but it did not help that of the four usually dependable Shanghai members -- violinists Weigang Li and Yiwen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist James Wilson -- only Wilson seemed at his best.

On too many occasions, the first violin seemed about to pull away impetuously from the second. And the matter of Brahms' thick textures -- always a challenge to both string players and listeners -- was not helped much by the failure of the viola and second violin to support and clarify the music's inner voices.

More enjoyable listening was provided by a performance of Haydn's G Major Quartet (opus 77, No. 1), which opened the program, and by one of the first movement of Frank Bridge's String Quartet No. 1, which was played as an encore.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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