String Quartet No.1
String Quartet No.3
String Quartet No.9 in E flat, Op.117
[Yu-Ying Ng & Chek Meng Ang (violins); Lionel Tan (viola) & Leslie Tan (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 26 March, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The T’ang’s programme was well chosen to illustrate the strengths of the ensemble in music from the early, mid, and late twentieth-century. The chequered career of Erwin Schulhoff, his end coming in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 48, is matched by the range and unevenness of his output. Some of his best music is found in the chamber works of the 1920s, and if the First Quartet (1924) is not the equal of the String Sextet (his most played chamber work and his likely masterpiece), it remains a striking contribution to what was a golden age for the medium between the two world wars.
If the first three movements – respectively an energetic sonata-allegro, a quixotic intermezzo and a driving scherzo – seem rather too compacted for their own good, the sombre Andante that forms the finale is a finely-worked amalgam of Webernian linear clarity and Bartókian harmonic pungency, the sombre ambivalence leaving a powerful overall impression. The T’ang was fully alive to the work’s compendious techniques, employed more for expressive effect than formal articulation – to which end the musicians found greater cohesion in the non-sequiturs than the composer might have expected.
Although his orchestral piece, Lacerations, made a fair impact when Kurt Masur toured it with the New York Philharmonic a decade ago, and there was a piece of his at Proms 2004, relatively little has been heard of Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng (born 1955) in the UK. And yet his immediate but subtly-drawn music effects a synthesis of East and West far more substantial and involving than with more illustrious contemporaries. His Third Quartet (1993), the two earlier such works having been withdrawn, was inspired by a Tibetan folk troupe in the Qinghai region and the intermingling of song and dance in a process of cumulative intensity.
This takes place over the course of a lengthy first movement at whose apex a shorter but no less sustained Larghetto takes over to conclude the work in subdued yet elegiac reverie. Commissioned by and dedicated to the Takács Quartet, it has recently been championed by the T’ang – its members’ unstintingemotional identity with both the music and its inspiration left one in no doubt as to the measure of their commitment.
Although relatively short measure for a second half, Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet (1964) more than compensates with the variety of ideas and motion over the course of its five continuous movements. A shade stolid in the disquieting calm of the opening Moderato, the T’ang plumbed the depths of the two Adagios – searching, then impassioned – and the malevolent caper of the central Allegretto, the numerous solo recitatives forcefully rendered. Impressive too was the strutting gait of the finale’s central section though the outer ones were too headlong to be fully convincing, and a similarly brisk tempo for the coda left insufficient emotional space to wrap up musical loose ends.
Even so, this was a superbly played account suggesting a real grasp of a piece that has only latterly come into its own, while the overall recital left one equally impressed by the ensemble’s dedication. Hopefully the T’ang will make a return visit to London post haste: for the present, the musicians took their leave with an invigorating Chinese folk dance – more Occident than Orient, perhaps, and not the worse for that.