Hear the world premiere of Vivian Fung’s String Quartet no. 2, commissioned by the Shanghai Quartet, along with Mozart’s String Quartet no. 15 and Beethoven’s monumental Quartet opp. 130/133, performed by one of the world’s leading chamber music ensembles. The Shanghai Quartet has appeared annually at the Freer Gallery of Art since 1996. One of their recent performances inspired the Washington Post to applaud their “self-effacing beauty of sound . . . gorgeous tone with an unwavering unanimity of expressive intent . . . a musical conversation of stunning authenticity and presence.” This concert was recorded before a live audience as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series on April 23, 2009.
Weigang Li, violin
Yi-Wen Jiang, violin
Honggang Li, viola
Nicholas Tzavaras, cello
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
String Quartet no. 15 in D Minor, K. 421 (1783)
Allegretto, ma non troppo
String Quartet no. 2 (2009) World Premiere
Of the Wind
Of Birds and Insects
Interlude—With Calmness: Klangfarbenmelodie
Of Tribes and Villages
Postlude: Of Ghosts and Memories
(No pauses occur between the first and second, second and third, and fifth and sixth movements.)
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet no. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130 (1825–26)
Adagio, ma non troppo—Allegro
Andante con moto, ma non troppo
Alla danza tedesca (Allegro assai)
Cavatina (Adagio molto espressivo)
Grosse Fuge (Allegro)
String Quartet no. 15 in D Minor, K. 421
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
The bond between Mozart and Haydn was a rare example of lasting friendship and artistic interaction between two supremely talented men. On February 12, 1785, after hearing String Quartet no. 15 in D Minor and two other new quartets his friend had written, Haydn said to Mozart's father, "Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by reputation."
In the preceding years, Haydn had developed the string quartet as a distinct form and style, and the ever-attentive Mozart appropriated each new feature and invested it with the individuality of his own particular genius. Haydn's six Russian Quartets, op. 33, inspired Mozart to write three of his own. When Haydn was in Vienna in 1784 and 1785, Mozart composed three more in rapid succession. These six quartets show Mozart at the peak of his creative power. Unusual for the time, they were written solely on the basis of inspiration, not commission.
On September 1, 1785, Mozart sent the quartets to Haydn with a dedicatory letter that read (abridged here): "To my dear friend Haydn: I send my six sons to you, most celebrated and dear friend. They are the fruit of long and laborious study. During your last stay in this city, you expressed your approval of these compositions. Please accept them and be a father, guide, and friend to them. Be indulgent of the faults that may have escaped my partial eye, and, in spite of them, continue your generous friendship. I remain, with all my heart, your most sincere friend, W. A. Mozart."
The D Minor Quartet, the second in the set, probably was completed sometime in June 1783. Mozart's wife, Constanze, later related how their first son was born while her husband was writing this quartet. She recalled that Mozart would interrupt his work periodically to attend to her labor, and that the child arrived as the composer finished the Menuetto. Although Mozart supposedly planned his compositions quite thoroughly in his mind before setting them on paper, the manuscript of this quartet shows how carefully he revised it before sending the music to Haydn. The work's complex, intricate composition became a model for musicians throughout the nineteenth century, from Schubert to Brahms.
The first movement consists of three elements: the violin's melody, the cello's descending scale, and the other instruments' rhythmic figure, the last of which is reflected and sometimes directly quoted later on in order to lend a unified integrity to the entire piece. At the end of the exposition section, the first violin plays an independent and isolated figure of three notes, which appears in each movement as another device that further unifies the whole.
Next comes a tender second movement, shaped like a three-part song with a dark, passionate middle section. Musicologist Wolfgang Hildesheimer suggests that Constanze's exclamations of labor pain may have found their way into the music as two forte outbursts in the movement's central section. The third movement is remarkable for its melancholy, although the central Trio section is a sunny major-key folk dance with pizzicato accompaniment. For the finale, Mozart takes a gently rocking theme and weaves a set of four variations and a coda of increasingly complex rhythm much like the Siciliano, an Italian pastoral dance form.
String Quartet no. 2 (commissioned by the Shanghai Quartet)
Vivian Fung (b. 1975)
As a composer, I try to best represent in musical terms my own individual voice in each work that I write. Even though each composition addresses different artistic challenges, issues of my Asian identity underscore much of my work. Oftentimes, the source of inspiration for a work lies in Asian folk materials, as is the case in this string quartet, which uses a Chinese folk song as the basis of the introduction, interlude, and postlude.
Having heard the Shanghai Quartet in performance and on recordings many times, I realized that the group not has only the technical and musical artistry to rival any of the top string quartets in the world, but it also exudes a special lyricism and sensitivity that sets it apart. I wanted to write music that could highlight all of these qualities for the group, and I chose a format of six shorter movements, with each movement being a study in a certain mood or affect that is represented in the subtitles of the movements. These descriptions are not to be taken literally but are more evocative in flavor.
The first movement introduces the folk song as a chorale with the instruction "to be played like a consort of viols." In other words, I wanted an ancient sound quality, as though the movement was written many moons ago. The second movement, subtitled "Of the Wind," evokes ferocity and aggression, and the challenge comes with the different bow strokes involved and the virtuosic scalar passages featured. The third movement, "Of Birds and Insects," is meant to be playful and humorous, using many off-the-bow strokes, natural harmonics, and ornamentation, including glissandi and trills, to depict the sounds of nature. The fourth movement, Interlude, restates the folk song of the first movement but in a disguised form in which each note of the melody is played by a different member of the quartet—hence the term Klangfarbenmelodie, German for "tone-color melody." The fifth movement, "Of Tribes and Villages," features a distinct rhythmic drive as well as a songful melody in the middle section. The last movement, "Of Ghosts and Memories," restates the folk song as a slow chorale and is constantly interjected with quotations, or "memories," of the previous movements.
String Quartet no. 13 in B-Flat, op. 130
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Beethoven wrote this quartet in 1825 and 1826 as the third in a group of three quartets dedicated to his faithful supporter, Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, who a year earlier had organized the first performance of the Missa Solemnis in St. Petersburg. After that point, Galitzin's fortunes began to fail, and he could pay for only one of the quartets. Correspondence between the two reveals a great deal about the relationship of patron and composer during this period. It was no ordinary thing for a mighty Russian prince, even one on the decline, to address a commoner as "Dear and Respected Monsieur van Beethoven."
The six-movement form of this quartet sometimes has been compared to the divertimento of a generation earlier, but the resemblance is purely fortuitous. No divertimento could have had a finale like the one Beethoven originally composed for this quartet and then replaced during the following year at the suggestion of his publisher and friends. (The original finale is now known as the Grosse Fuge [great fugue], op. 133, one of the most imposing movements in all of Beethoven's work.) This quartet does follow the traditional slow-fast alternation of movements of classical-period music, but it does not adhere to the traditional four-movement structure. Instead, it has two extra movements—a scherzo and then a slow Cavatina—placed before the finale.
The spacious first movement is a complex structure in which fragmentary materials from the slow introductory Adagio and the quick Allegro intimately intermingle. Its most startling features are the two keys Beethoven used for each statement of the second theme, since both are very remote from the home key. This choice hints at how far afield Beethoven will venture in later movements.
The second movement has a contrasting Trio. This condensed movement with its short phrases is the antithesis of the one that precedes it. Musicologist Barry Cooper explains that Beethoven's well-delineated sketches of this piece indicate he did not have a good idea of what would follow, except that the third movement would be slow. Not even the number of movements was settled early on. "The quartet was thus being created as a kind of narrative, rather than a canvas where the overall outline is clear from the start," Cooper writes. The later movements could be molded to suit the earlier ones, but the earlier ones were in no way fashioned as preparation for what follows."
The third movement begins with a quote of the first two notes of the first movement, before the viola presents the main theme. The movement seems light yet the themes are decorated with complex and elaborate accompaniments.
As a kind of German minuet or waltz, the fourth movement originally was intended for the op. 132 quartet, but the great Song of Thanksgiving replaced it. Its dance rhythms strongly contrast with the music of the preceding movement, although it, too, is a light movement, much like the dances of the divertimento.
The following Cavatina is one of the most emotionally charged slow movements in the quartet literature. Its title refers to a kind of slow, expressive, operatic aria, and here the first violin is the soloist throughout, while the other instruments unobtrusively accompany the solo line. Beethoven described this movement as beklemmt (anguished or oppressed), and he once remarked, perhaps referring to this movement, "My own music has never before made such an impression on me. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes."
For his original finale, Beethoven took up the thematic idea he had originally planned for his op. 127, transposing it and shortening it. It developed into the Grosse Fuge, perhaps conceived as a tribute to the work of Bach. At the work's premiere, this massive finale was found to be problematic. Some rejected it as the confused ramblings of a deranged man. Others sensed it was a masterpiece but thought it was not suitable as the final movement to this quartet. Even though it reintroduced and resolved ideas articulated in earlier movements, the strong criticism made Beethoven uneasy. His publisher agreed that it did not fit in either scale or style, and he convinced Beethoven to write a substitute finale and publish the Grosse Fuge separately.
Formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, the Shanghai Quartet celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in the 2008–2009 season. Highlighting this significant anniversary season are performances at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and at international festivals at Ravinia, Tanglewood, and Ottawa, along with residencies at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Oregon Bach Festival. The world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's String Quartet no. 3 took place in November 2008 at a special concert in Poland honoring the composer's seventy-fifth birthday, followed by performances in the United States at Montclair State University and the University of Richmond. Continuing its anniversary collaboration with Chanticleer, the Quartet will present the Asian premiere of Chen Yi's From the Path of Beauty next month in China.
The Shanghai Quartet regularly tours the major music centers of Europe, North America, and Asia, and recent seasons have included concert tours of Japan, China, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition, the Quartet has released more than twenty-five recordings, with the recent release of the Mendelssohn Octet (on Camerata) and Zhou Long's Poems from Tang for quartet and orchestra with the Singapore Symphony (on BIS). In 2003 it they released Chinasong (on Delos), a popular twenty-four-track collection of Chinese folk songs arranged by Yi-Wen Jiang and based on his childhood memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The Shanghai Quartet made a cameo appearance in the Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda(and the film's soundtrack recording), playing Bartok's String Quartet no. 4, and performed on the PBS "Great Performances" series. Other film credits include an appearance by violinist Weigang Li in the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, and the family of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras served as the subject of the 1999 film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep.
The Shanghai Quartet currently serves as ensemble-in-residence at Montclair State University in New Jersey and holds the title of visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in China.