No gimmicks, just solid and serious music

It is hard to believe that the T'ang Quartet are now in their 28th year.

Formed in 1992, violinists Ng Yu Ying and Ang Chek Meng, violist Lionel Tan and cellist Leslie Tan were then "angry young men" on a mission, with attitudes and attire to match.

These days, they are regarded as elder statesmen of chamber music, often playing mentor to younger musicians and students. They can still be relied on do a good show. This latest concert had neither gimmicks nor witty catchphrases, just solid and serious music.

The curtain-raiser saw three young musicians - violist Ho Qian Hui, pianist Shayna Yap and mezzo-soprano Maggie Lu Pei Yun - all of whom are or were students at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory where the quartet are resident.

Brahms' Two Songs Op. 91, for that unusual combination, was an ideal starter. In no way was the viola subservient to the other two parts, as the part was originally written for the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim to perform with his singer wife and Brahms as pianist. Ho's warm and dusky string tone was a balm, later joined by Lu's lighter and more buoyant voice in German.

The sheer mellowness of the first song Gestillte Sehnsucht (Assuaged Longing) was contrasted with the gentle rocking rhythm of the second song Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Cradle Song), which had a more dramatic central section for effect.

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Longing and passion continued into the next work, Italian composer Ottorino Respighi's Il Tramonto (The Sunset), with an Italian setting of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Lu was slightly less comfortable in sung Italian, but she provided many pretty moments in the languorous 15-minute concert aria-like work.

Ho's value as ensemble violist was demonstrated, ably standing in for Lionel Tan in the quartet, supporting Lu's seamless song. This late-Romantic music called to mind less of the operatic excesses of Verdi or Puccini, but more of Wagner's darker and reposeful shadings. Cellist Leslie Tan had choice solo bits to display urgency and passion.

In the second half, the viola seat was occupied by Zhang Manchin, principal violist of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, in Beetho-ven's late String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major (Op. 130). Unusual in having six movements instead of four, the 40-minute work was a playground for the ensemble's versatility.

For the 1st movement's slow introduction, the unison phrasing was so gripping as to immediately draw the listener in. Alternation of calmness and violent interjections, typical of the German composer, was well handled. Between the two extended outer movements, four contrasting shorter movements were played with a combination of humour and charm.

The sole exception was the slow 5th movement Cavatina, which unfolded majestically, not unlike the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Its resolution was a rollicking rondo finale, a communal letting down of hair that seemed almost vulgar by comparison. Little matter, it brought out the loudest applause.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2019, with the headline 'No gimmicks, just solid and serious music'. Print Edition | Subscribe