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Music Reviews : Shanghai String Quartet in West Coast Debut at Biola

If the intensity of a musical performance could be measured like that of an earthquake, the West Coast debut of the Shanghai String Quartet, Monday at Biola University, would have registered a good 7.0 on the Richter scale. The ensemble, formed in 1983 at the Shanghai Conservatory and now serving as the resident graduate ensemble at Juilliard, proved one of the most taut and interpretively unified in memory.

The quartet’s assertive, muscular approach produced stunning results in Bartok’s Third Quartet. Fully capitalizing on timbral and dynamic contrasts and effectively bringing out contrapuntal lines, the four gave an unusually propulsive, rhythmically vital account that kept the listener fully engaged from beginning to end.

The same was true for the Debussy Quartet, a work not normally delivered with such urgency and extroversion. By virtue of the extraordinary expressiveness and sheer dynamism of their playing, the four made their view of the work absolutely convincing. Moreover, the Andantino was delivered with uncommon sensitivity, and made for a remarkable and very moving contrast.

The high-powered interpretation of Mozart’s Quartet in C (“Dissonant”), however, made no sense. Obvious tempo changes, uncharacteristic crescendos and unusually heavy accents robbed the work of its elegance and subtlety. Although the four players--violinists Wei-Gang Li and Hong-Gang Li, violist Zheng Wang and cellist Kathe Jarka--demonstrated the same high level of virtuosity here as elsewhere, they showed little understanding of the Classical style.

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The enthusiasm of the predominantly student audience elicited one encore--a modern arrangement of a Chinese folk song.


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