The Shanghai String Quartet at Maverick

Both Debussy and Ravel’s string quartets are favorites of mine, and I can now say I’ve had the joy of hearing the Shanghai String Quartet — who, in my humble opinion, are the best string quartet in the world — play both. They played Ravel’s Quartet in F minor a few years ago at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, NY, and Debussy’s Quartet in G minor on Sunday, when I saw them at Maverick once again. What makes the Shanghai String Quartet so extraordinary is not only their flawless technique, but also their uncanny ability to create an energy among them when they’re playing that I can’t even begin to describe. It’s truly powerful to behold, and that translates into the music, which they whisper from the depths of it’s potential. In an interesting book that I’m reading at the moment, “Temperament” by Stuart Isacoff, it states that the playwright Phrynichus was fined one thousand drachmas for making the crowd who saw his production of The Capture Of Miletus unhappy (apparently evoking emotion of any kind in people was a bad thing back in, oh, 500 BC or so). I’m not entirely sure just how much one thousand drachmas is, but I know one thing: I would pay double that to be brought to tears by the playing of the Shanghai String Quartet. Luckily I didn’t have to, for I think it’s safe to say Maverick charges much less, and I was indeed moved to tears at Sunday’s concert. The program:

String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 13
Felix Mendelssohn

Adagio – Allegro vivace

Adagio non lento

Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto

Presto

String Quartet No. 3
Krzystof Penderecki

String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10
Claude Debussy

Anime et tres decide

Assev vif et bien rythme

Andantino, doucement expressif

Tres modere – tres mouvemente et avec passion

Mendelssohn’s string quartet opened with all four instruments simultaneously playing slow beautiful chords until the music became restless, darting here and there, delicately so at first before increasing in strength. Viola had a few exquisite passages before surrendering to the violin which carried a large portion of the movement, the other instruments supporting it’s lead. The second movement also opened with sad, slow chords played by all four instruments. It then went into a bittersweet melody on viola, joined by second violin, first violin, and lastly cello. The music had an intricately webbed richness, and surged to new heights throughout. It was very dramatic, and when the music reached it’s summit, the violin played a few measure solo before all four instruments returned to the melody of the opening and ended the movement with repeated notes. First violin, along with plucked second violin, viola, and cello introduced the stately third movement of the piece. It had a continuity until a pause in the music, which started back staccato and quite different. It was both playful and serious, jumping from one instrument to the next. As in the second movement, the third returned to the opening as it came to a close, with pieces of the second part mixed in. After a quick pause, the musicians plunged into the final movement, faster and darker than those previous. The music pulsed, running up and down through octaves, angrily galloping like a wild stallion through rocky mountains. The music then rose to the clouds, airily melting back into the intro for the final bars.

Penderecki’s quartet, commissioned by the Shanghai String Quartet, has interesting rhythms; running, pausing, slightly crazed, yet ceaselessly grounded. Although there are no “movements” per se, there are individual sections which are tied together by a theme. At times the piece was somewhat harsh, but never too much so — always the right amount. Parts were quite fantastical, others compellingly disturbing. There were surprises at every turn… Sometimes the music unexpectedly turned dervish, sometimes it become suddenly sweet and tender. Viola had some amazing parts, and the bowing of all the instruments (a lot of repeated down strokes, or a lot of repeated up) created a fascinating frenzy. It was quite obsessive, uprooting the listeners sense of perception and giving them a new one (which was fine by me). The passages in between the theme were much different, but equally moving, flying like arrows launched by the strongest of archers through a dark night. Parts of the music wailed high into second position, as though calling some unseen force. It’s quite a haunting work, and the pulsing theme has been recurring in my thoughts.

When the time came for Debussy’s quartet, I thought my heart would burst right out of my chest — and the first movement hadn’t even started yet! I saw the man to my right look at me as the musicians prepared to play, and I’m curious as to whether he was wondering if I was okay… Just because I was grinning like a fool and sighing doesn’t mean anything! Well, except that I was excited. When the music did start, my heart luckily didn’t burst but simply expanded with joy. The first movement was like water, sometimes turbulent, sometimes calm. It flowed like the life essence too — suitable, since Debussy’s music is a life essence all it’s own. Two loud angry chords closed the first movement, resonating even after the musicians had lifted their bows. The second movement was played pizzicato, opening with plucked strings, and had a Flamenco-like flair. The sounds that come from Debussy’s quartet (and all of his music for that matter, although the works for stringed instruments in particular) are magnetic, involuntarily pulling you into their web of dreams. Debussy is one of the few composers who, although I myself play and certainly understand how music works, makes me wonder how such sounds can be captured on paper with ink, and produced by a piece of carved wood, or perhaps a piano. The Shanghai String Quartet is one of the few quartets whose playing affects me enough to think that way as well. But getting back to Sunday’s performance, the third movement found second violin playing smoothly, as cello whispered minimal notes in the background. Eventually all joined together in playing a fragile wordless song. Viola had a large portion of the melody, accompanied by angelic chords, courtesy of the other three instruments. The music of the third movement is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard, and I was deeply affected by the Shanghai String Quartet’s playing of it. They evoked such an emotional response in me that I had to control myself so as not to loudly weep (instead I quietly did so). Cello began the fourth and final movement, during which the music was serene at first, but later anxious. The movement was entrancing, and whisked the audience’s thoughts up along it’s journey, of which the destination was unclear (eventually ending on a triumphant note). Before it got to that point, however, it had to undergo a few transformations. Like an animal being closed in upon by hunters, it’s energy was frenetic, whipping around, weaving a path of organized chaos. And then came the final resolution, as the clouds parted, the earth shook, and nothing could stop the glory that abounded.

At the end of their performance, the Shanghai String Quartet was called back to the stage three times due to incessant applause and the stomping of feet, but did not play an encore. I’m glad they didn’t, because Debussy’s work was performed magnificently — as were all the pieces they played — and, quite honestly, what could top that?

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