T'ang Quartet show they have many more good years to come



T'ang Quartet: Ng Yu-Ying, Ang Chek Meng (violins), Lionel Tan (viola), Leslie Tan (cello)

School of the Arts Concert Hall/ Last Saturday

Over the past quarter century, T'ang Quartet has thrilled, delighted, surprised and impressed audiences here and around the world with its bold yet accessible programmes. This evening's more "classic" fare of a late Beethoven quartet and Bela Bartok's first quartet was a welcome deviation and the energy and the quality of its music-making tell of a foursome that has many more productive years ahead of it.

The End that the concert title referred to is the String Quartet No. 12, Op. 127 by Beethoven. It marked the end of the composer's "middle" period, just as cellist Leslie Tan described the quartet having reached middle age.

Less heroic and revolutionary than Beethoven's preceding quartets, the subtle complexity of the work is demanding for the musicians and listeners. The first movement opened with a slow-rising melody, which first violin Ng Yu-Ying played with fine control. His carefully shaped lines held up the movement well and his leading was strong all evening.

The second movement, a set of variations that echoes the harmony of the quartet, gave every member a chance to express himself. Here Ng and Tan were noteworthy in how they expressed the restlessness and yearning in the music.

Listening to this intense and complex quartet close up, seated almost directly in front of the musicians, was not ideal. Some nervous vibrato was discernible and balance among the four not perfect. Tan matched Ng well, but Ang and Lionel Tan sounded slightly muted from where this reviewer was seated.

It was in the playful third movement Scherzo that the group seemed fully warmed up. The players revelled in its playful dotted rhythms and there was a rise in intensity in the playing. By the final movement, the foursome was playing with full vigour and conviction, and it ended with a strong finale.

Listening from a different seat two-thirds down the hall in the second half, the balance among the players was markedly improved, almost as if another string quartet were on stage.

Under normal circumstances, the String Quartet No. 1 by Hungarian composer Bartok would be considered much more technically demanding than the Beethoven quartet, and the more challenging piece for the audience. But over the years, T'ang Quartet has been fully at home with 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. This evening, the players once again showed their mastery in drawing their audience to this music.

The first movement was inspired by Bartok's unrequited love for the violinist Stefi Geyer.

His pining for Geyer can be heard in the falling sixth interval, initially played by first violin Ng. Second violinist Ang was an exemplary partner here, sensitively matching, but never outplaying his partner.

Similarly, the Tan brothers on viola and cello were a perfect pair in their tandem passages throughout the work.

The brooding and emotion of the movement gradually lift, but never completely. The movement progresses directly into the second movement with ebb and flow, moving from major to minor harmonies and bouts of atonality, which the T'ang Quartet took on with remarkable ease. It seemed that these musicians were fully at home with all aspects of modern string quartet technique.

The third movement begins with a brisk introduction and soon morphs into more familiar Bartok - rustic, rhythmic and with snatches of Hungarian folk music melody. The music is bursting with energy and the quartet was clearly savouring the performance and the build-up to the spirited finale.

Leslie Tan's introduction hinted that the enigmatic title of the concert might be pointing at a new phase in the life of the quartet.

T'ang Quartet has indeed matured over 25 years and in a most admirable way. The old fire is still there in its playing, now coupled with greater maturity and control. This feels like a great beginning.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Passion meets maturity'. Subscribe