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In performance: Shanghai Quartet

Web-only review:

Shanghai Quartet: disciplined in Penderecki
by Robert Battey

The Shanghai Quartet, longtime visitors to the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery, presented a characteristic program Wednesday evening: standards by Beethoven and Debussy, a premiere of a knotty modern work and a charming bonbon of traditional Chinese music in piquant, clever quartet arrangements.
(read more after the jump)

Krzysztof Penderecki, Poland's grand old man of music, has moved on from the avant-garde shockers he produced in the 1960s; his style is much more mainstream now, though still Eurocentric. This former Yale professor has ignored all the major U.S. trends, including Carter and Wuorinen, the minimalists, John Adams and the polyglot "world-music" types. His Quartet No. 3, written last year for the Shanghai, uses rhetoric that is easily accessible to anyone familiar with Messiaen, Ginastera or late Shostakovich. While the harmonic language is often gratingly dissonant, the underlying tonal scheme is conservative, almost unsophisticated. The string writing was striking and often quite original, and the quarter-hour piece never seemed too long.

Yi-Wen Jiang, the Shanghai's second violinist, flashed some impressive string-writing chops of his own in charming arrangements of two folk songs. The bird calls that opened "Mia Mountain Morning" were arresting, as were the episodes that invoked some sort of Chinese hoedown. "Yao Dance" was more foursquare, but the melodies soared.

Elsewhere, the Shanghai's disciplined, carefully prepared readings offered many pleasures, such as the excellent, well-pointed rhythms in Beethoven's Op. 95 quartet, but often glossed over rather than dug out the richer details. Dynamics and accents were rounded off and constrained in the Debussy Quatour.

-- Robert Battey

By Anne Midgette  |  December 11, 2009; 6:16 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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