Bartók’s six string quartets make up the finest quartet cycle since Beethoven’s. But it took time for them to be thus appreciated. Just as Beethoven’s late quartets were initially “too difficult” for audiences and musicians, so it was with Bartók’s set. Now, of course, Beethoven’s are regarded as an absolute pinnacle of western classical music. Thanks to the members of the Julliard Quartet in the 1960s, who began playing Bartok’s quartets for modern audiences, they, too, are assuming their rightful place.
The First Quartet can be heard as both a late romantic work and as an introduction to 20th century music. The work has both a narrative and a musical structure. The narrative is autobiographical, that being the 27-year-old Bartók’s unrequited love for the violinist Stefi Geyer. It is said that she rejected him because of his atheism. The first movement lento begins with the disappointed lover’s sighs in the form of falling minor sixths. But this is the low point of the story; from there on the quartet proceeds though a whole succession of moods—sadness, despair, cries of pain, anger, impatience, finally awakening and reemergence. Bartók referred to the opening as his “funeral dirge” but his friend Zoltán Kodály said the whole work is a “return to life”.
The musical form is seamless in that the three movements merge into one another by way of brief introductions reminiscent of the structure of Beethoven’s late C sharp minor quartet, Op. 131. This must be intentional as the music writing itself seems similarly inspired by Beethoven’s dynamic example. At the same time, there are Hungarian folk tunes and the substantial final movement consists of a series of episodes including a parody of European café music, wry references to the falling minor sixths of the opening, a grotesque scherzando and a fast, driving coda to end the work. The man has definitely recovered.
One can hardly imagine more different first movements than in these two quartets: Bartok’s No.1 and Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 2. Whereas the Bartok begins with the languid sigh of a falling sixth, Beethoven begins with two dramatically brusque chords, the tonic and dominant chords of E minor, followed by a one bar rest. One could say “that’s it”, for the incredible thing is that just about everything that follows in this dramatic movement is an elaboration, an expansion, of these two chords. Each structural division of the movement—the opening exposition and its repeat, the development section, the recapitulation and the coda—all begin with two distinctive chords so, it’s fairly easy to know where you are and where Beethoven is taking you. And what an exciting journey it is!
According to Beethoven’s friend and fellow musician Carl Czerny, the second movement andante in E major is a serene hymn to the beauty, the vastness and the spiritual significance that the night sky had for the composer—something, by the way, that was accessible to everyone in 1806—sadly not so much, these days, given our light pollution.
The third movement scherzo returns to the key of E minor with a nervously syncopated theme. It is in the middle trio section that we hear the Russian melody fulfilling the wishes of Count Rasumovsky who, when commissioning the Op. 59 quartets, requested that one be included in each quartet. Here it is the great hymn “Glory Be to God in Heaven”, which was expanded to sublime effect by Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov. But Beethoven has other ideas. He simply introduces the melody by having it played solo on each instrument and then embarks on a bewitching contrapuntal display, leading to a canon and only finally untangling for the return of the scherzo.
The final movement rondo theme is a raucous country dance, rather notable because, against conventional musical practice in 1806, the music spends most of the time in C major except for occasional E minor gestures. However, Beethoven ends the quartet in E minor, but in only the very final measures, and without at all dissipating the upbeat mood.
— John Bevan • March, 2021
Over the past thirty-seven years the Shanghai Quartet has become one of the world’s foremost chamber ensembles. The Shanghai’s elegant style, impressive technique, and emotional breadth allows the group to move seamlessly between masterpieces of Western music, traditional Chinese folk music, and cutting-edge contemporary works. Formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, soon after the end of China’s harrowing Cultural Revolution, the group came to the United States to complete its studies; since then the members have been based in the U.S. while maintaining a robust touring schedule at leading chamber-music series throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
Recent performance highlights include performances at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Freer Gallery (Washington, D.C.), and the Festival Pablo Casals in France, and Beethoven cycles for the Brevard Music Center, the Beethoven Festival in Poland, and throughout China. The Quartet also frequently performs at Wigmore Hall, the Budapest Spring Festival, Suntory Hall, and has collaborations with the NCPA and Shanghai Symphony Orchestras. Upcoming highlights include the premiere of a new work by Marcos Balter for the Quartet and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo for the Phillips Collection, return performances for Maverick Concerts and the Taos School of Music, and engagements in Los Angeles, Syracuse, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City. Among innumberable collaborations with eminent artists, they have performed with the Tokyo, Juilliard, and Guarneri Quartets; cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell; pianists Menahem Pressler, Peter Serkin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang; pipa virtuoso Wu Man; and the vocal ensemble Chanticleer. The Shanghai Quartet appears regularly at many of North America’s most prominent chamber music festivals, including annual performances for Maverick Concerts, the Brevard Music Center, and Music Mountain.
The Shanghai Quartet has a long history of championing new music, with a special interest in works that juxtapose the traditions of Eastern and Western music. The Quartet has commissioned works from an encyclopedic list of the most important composers of our time, including William Bolcom, Sebastian Currier, David Del Tredici, Tan Dun, Vivian Fung, Lowell Lieberman, Zhou Long, Marc Neikrug, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, and Du Yun.
The Quartet had a particularly close relationship with Krzysztof Penderecki; they premiered his third quartet– Leaves From an Unwritten Diary–at the composer’s 75th birthday concert and repeated it again at both his 80th and 85th birthday celebrations. Forthcoming and recent commissions include new works from Judith Weir, Tan Dun, and Wang Lei, in addition to a new work from Penderecki. The Shanghai Quartet has an extensive discography of more than thirty recordings, ranging from Schumann and Dvořák piano quintets with Rudolf Buchbinder to Zhou Long’s Poems from Tang for string quartet and orchestra with the Singapore Symphony. The Quartet has recorded the complete Beethoven string quartets and is currently recording the complete Bartók quartets. A diverse array of media projects run the gamut from a cameo appearance playing Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in Woody Allen’s film Melinda and Melinda to PBS television’s Great Performances series. Violinist Weigang Li appeared in the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, and the family of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras was the subject of the film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep. The Shanghai Quartet is the subject of a full-length documentary film, Behind the Strings that will be released in 2020.
Serving as Quartet-in-Residence at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University since 2002, the Shanghai Quartet will also join the Tianjin (China) Juilliard School in fall 2020 as resident faculty members. The Quartet also is the Ensemble-in-Residence with the ShanghaiSymphony Orchestra and visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and Central Conservatory in Beijing. They are proudly sponsored by Thomastik-Infeld Strings and BAM Cases.
We thank the following generous donors who have given so far in 2021, without whom our concerts would not be possible.
And we thank the following generous foundations, businesses and individuals who helped us bring you our concerts in 2020.
* In memory of Josh Lipton