When instructing music students, showing can be more important than telling, and doing more critical still. This month the Shanghai Quartet acted as the chamber music instructors at the 2022 Youth Music Culture Guangdong (YMCG), an annual festival celebrating young classical musicians in China. But they did more than give master classes to student string quartets. The renowned foursome showed by presenting their own Beethoven concert.
The concert was recorded at Tianjin Juilliard School earlier, on December 16, 2020, as a tribute to front-line workers and to mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. It surely offered many lessons to the students. Video is just now being made available to the public.
Beethoven String Quartets: Early and Late
The program surveyed the three major stages of Beethoven’s string quartet output. It opened with the sixth and final quartet of Op. 18, the set known as Beethoven’s “early” quartets. With these works the composer showed that by 1798-1800 he had fully mastered the classical string quartet format inherited from Haydn and Mozart.
Violinists Li Weigang and Angelo Xiang Yu, violist Li Honggang, and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras displayed great dexterity and dynamic subtlety in an energetic reading of the first movement, with its rich, friendly Bb-major sonority. They found a soft, exquisite melancholy in the “Adagio” second movement, presaging the Finale, and an airy bounce in the Scherzo’s quick syncopations. The Finale itself, titled “La Malinconia” (“Melancholy”) in fact, cast a real spell, especially when the haunting first theme returned after the dance section.
“La Malinconia” actually served as a suitable lead-in to the titanic “Grosse Fuge.” Skipping ahead to the period of the “late” quartets, the musicians dove into that weird and woolly single-movement piece (originally a final movement but rejected for its bizarreness) with gusto.
After nearly 200 years, it’s still tough for the listener to figure out what’s going on in this tangled double fugue. (It’s also very tough to play, I don’t doubt.) Honestly, it makes my head swim. The SQ took it on bravely. After their muscular performance I am no more and no less perplexed. But my respect for this ensemble has been magnified.
A Stormy Middle Period Quartet
Last on the program, from Beethoven’s middle period, the String Quartet No. 8 brought out the Shanghai Quartet’s stormy side. The bitter tragedy evoked by the swirling first movement carried into the “Molto Adagio” slow movement. The latter’s main theme may be hymnlike, but in the Shanghai’s powerful interpretation the overall mood suggested sadness more than devotion. Dotted-eighths trudged more than they bounced; shimmering scales lifted pandemic-dampened spirits into at best a cloudy sky.
Built upon folk-dance-like themes, the Scherzo sounded ominous, Beethoven’s hard-edged approach relieved by a nimble major-key Trio section (which was, however, marred by brief tuning lapses). The concert ended bracingly as first violinist Li Weigang shone in the racing Finale with its joyful main theme.
You can see and hear the performances described above by the Shanghai String Quartet at the YMCG Facebook page.