Friday, 17 May 2013

Live Review: Shanghai Quartet (April 6th 2013)

Shanghai Quartet
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
April 6th 2013
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

There are few better ways to end a season of a chamber music concert series than with a captivating performance by the Shanghai Quartet. The internationally-renowned string ensemble’s recital capped off Virtuosi Concerts’ 2012-13 season and also marked the Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary since its formation in 1983. The series’ Artistic Director Harry Strub noted that Virtuosi had spent the past ten years in a process to get the ensemble to perform in Winnipeg, making the evening feel even more celebratory. The Quartet – Weigang Lei and Yi-Wen Jiang on violin, Honggang Li on viola, and Nicholas Tsavaras on cello – thrilled a packed-to-the-rafters Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall with a display of flawless musicianship paired with a delightful sense of humour.

The Quartet opened with Haydn’s jubilant Quartet No. 53 in D major, Op. 64, No. 5, a piece frequently referred to as “The Lark Quartet” for its light and easygoing nature. Opening movement Allegro moderato’s smooth, effortless harmonies immediately won over the audience, with the sweet and golden-hued tones of Adagio cantabile and Menuetto allegretto only further enchanting listeners. Lei’s versatile violin and Tzavaras’ sonorous cello were particularly impressive in the passionate Finale vivace, where the four performers’ strokes and plucks created a thrilling mosaic.

Shostakovich’s dramatic Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 further confirmed the Quartet’s musical gifts in a more emotionally-varied piece. Li showed great sensitivity during the subdued, waltz-like Moderato con moto, and the ensemble’s skillful navigation of Lento – Allegretto’s hairpin shifts in mood and tempo was superb.

Dvorák’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 105 tied together a subtle theme of the evening – namely, a journey through several centuries of violin music, from ‘grandfather’ Haydn to his modern successors. Adagio ma non troppo – Allegreo appassionato featured Jiang’s deft, expressive bow work as well as gorgeous pizzicato by Tzavaras. The romantic Lento e molto cantabile was also a highlight, a change in pace prior to the demanding and energetic Allegro ma non troppo, which grew in intensity before culminating in one final, triumphant flourish.

It seemed as if the Quartet had finished for the evening, but after a sustained standing ovation and plenty of cheers from a smitten audience, the ensemble returned to the stage to express their appreciation with a truly special encore: an arrangement by Jiang of a Chinese folk song about a shepherd searching for his lost love. The wistful and highly evocative piece, inspired by the vast steppes of China’s northern provinces, was more than one could ask for.

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