String Quartet No.1
Five Pieces for String Quartet
String Quartet No.2 (From the Monkey Mountains)
[Yu-Ying Ng & Chek Meng Ang (violins), Lionel Tan (viola) & Leslie Tan (cello)]
Recorded in May 2004 in Hlubo Castle, Prague
Reviewed by: William Yeoman
Reviewed: October 2005
CD No: TANG QUARTET
Duration: 65 minutes
This is an impressive debut CD from the dynamic Singapore-based T’ang Quartet (the members’ names not included in the documentation), not least because of the repertoire. Eschewing a more obvious selection, the group has decided to highlight the lesser-known (at least among the general listening public) but no less attractive music for string quartet of Czech composers Erwin Schulhoff and Pavel Haas. The results are quite spectacular, with the frequent shifts in mood and distinctive mixture of jazz, folkloric, twelve-tone and neo-classical elements ensuring a continuously stimulating and often surprising listening experience.
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was one of the many composers whose experience of warfare turned them from late-Romanticism to an alignment with genuine left-wing avant-garde artists. A student of Max Reger, Schulhoff’s music began to synthesise Dadaist, Jazz and Schoenbergian flavours, resulting in a distinctive though still largely tonal expressionism. His First String Quartet (1924) and Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) use these flavours as a filter through which to view various dance forms, some overtly folk-like in nature; in the String Quartet No.1 these are complemented by the sometimes ironically morbid slower movements. In the first movement the confident opening gesture and accelerating energy gives way to the wistful harmonics and ghostly articulations of the succeeding Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca. An intervening rustic dance, imbued with a strange sense of melancholy, then drives inexorably towards the sombre, closing Andante molto sostenuto, in which an almost continuos pizzicato functions as a vanitas image of time wasting away while sinuous, misty lines hover above the surface. The playing here is superb, with some fine work in the upper registers and a subtle ability to capture every nuance of the music.
The Five Pieces for String Quartet is likewise beautifully characterised: a Waltz, Serenata, Czech dance, Tango Milonga and a final Tarantella (definitely Prestissimo con fuoco here!) provide moody, often-cheeky tableaux shot through with irony.
Between Schulhoff’s works the T’ang Quartet has placed the picturesque String Quartet No.2, ‘From the Monkey Mountain’, by Pavel Haas (1899-1944). The most significant influence on Haas’s music was Janáček (who was one of his teachers). The titles of the four movements (Landscape; Cart, Driver and Horse; The Moon and I; A Wild Night) ‘prime’ the listener for specific descriptive interpretation, but this is music that is purely abstracted – and there is much in the way of motivic development and extensive use of Moravian folk elements. The most overtly descriptive movement is ‘Cart, Driver and Horse’, in which the lumbering downward glissandos, punctuated by pizzicatos, alternate with more energetic episodes tinged with rustic dance – a very successful picture of the travails of a horse and cart negotiating the varied landscape! And again, the T’ang Quartet’s playing is spot-on, seizing pulsating accompaniments, frenzied dances and lyrical gentleness with an assurance, precision and sense of ensemble that would make many European and North American quartets very envious indeed.
The recorded sound is good, though a less reverberant acoustic would have been preferable. The CD’s title is, presumably, ironic: both Schulhoff and Haas perished in Nazi death-camps during World War II. This thus becomes not only an auspicious debut but also a moving tribute to the hundreds of artists whose creativity was stifled during that dark period.