T’ang Quartet mark 25th anniversary with mellower take on dark subjects

REVIEW / CONCERT

TRAMPLED SOULS

T'ang Quartet

Armenian Church/Sunday

Has it already been 25 years?

It seemed a short while ago when four young string players from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra became the country's first professional string quartet.

Their news-making stunts - such as posing topless for an 8 Days photo shoot - brought notoriety, but these belied their commitment and seriousness as an ensemble.

One will not find Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven quartets in a typical T'ang Quartet programme. However, Shostakovich, Schulhoff and Bright Sheng made it, in a 2005 concert at London's Wigmore Hall.

True to form, their 25th anniversary was commemorated with music by Janacek, Sallinen and Mozetich.

Unusual themes form the basis of T'ang Quartet concerts, including darker subjects involving murder, mayhem and the macabre.

At least two of these featured here, starting with Czech composer Janacek's First String Quartet, inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata. In it, a woman who falls for another man gets killed by her jealous husband, the passion developing over Beethoven's eponymous chamber work.

Strained emotions were captured in the quartet's entry and answered by ominous replies.

The second movement's folkdance-like strains did little to relieve the tension. Instead, the wiry, metallic sounds of sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge) added to the unease. The opening theme was reprised in the finale, but the backlash was precipitous, tapering to a dead end.

Just as dramatic was Finnish composer Sallinen's Third String Quartet. The work was a phantasmagorical set of variations on a droll children's song, opening with Ng Yu Ying's violin and Leslie Tan's cello unison, later sprinkled with pizzicatos from Ang Chek Meng's violin and Lionel Tan's viola.

Contemporary Canadian composer Mozetich's Lament In The Trampled Garden was not as grim as the title suggested.

Opening in G minor, the 14-minute work took on a leisurely pace, working up anguish and a mild catharsis, but never reaching the hysterics of a Schnittke quartet.

In a short note by the composer, who considered "dwelling on hurt a fruitless endeavour", the music took on a casual and jazzy turn, corresponding to his exhortation to "immerse in surrounding beauty... where your soul can only gain".

With this benediction, the quartet let the audience off lightly. The foursome have mellowed and, perhaps, so have we.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'T'ang's mellower take on dark subjects'. Print Edition | Subscribe