Review: Shanghai Quartet

with David Finckel, cello
& Wu Han, piano
Feb. 28, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

Thirty years ago, the Shanghai Quartet began its residency at the University of Richmond, which continued until 2003. Since the group’s departure to establish a residency at Montclair State University in New Jersey, the Shanghai has continued to perform at UR, which it considers its “second home,” each season.

For this informal anniversary program, the Shanghai – violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – joined by pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, presented two of the towering masterpieces of the chamber literature, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, and Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956.

Both received intricately, almost clinically, detailed, richly expressive and consistently dynamic readings that emphasized the lyrical content of these works over their dance underpinnings.

This interpretive stance was more successful in the Schubert, in which the string players rode the composer’s melodic currents and played up the quintet’s contrasts of light and dark moods. Finckel, playing the second cello part, underlined those contrasts. Exchanges between the Li brothers’ first violin and viola also were key components of this unhurried, affectionate yet stirring performance.

The Dvořák sang beguilingly, but seemed too studied when it danced, as if the musicians were watching their steps more than responding to the music’s flow.

Wu Han laid a fine foundation in brightly glowing, emphatic but never intrusive piano lines. The Shanghai string players, notably cellist Tzavaras and violist Li, treated the quintet’s wealth of melody lovingly, and were tightly focused on the piece’s intricate rhythmic details.

Those details, while revealing elements of the piece that go unheard in many performances, too often detracted from the essential rhythmic character of dance passages, such as the scherzo and the fast central section of the dumka.

The violins and viola also sounded with peculiarly hard, fibrous tones, which happily did not recur in the Schubert.

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