Slick show of versatility



Ones To Watch Series/Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall/Tuesday

Twenty years after making the Academy Award-winning documentary, From Mao To Mozart (1979), venerated American violinist Isaac Stern returned to Beijing, where he was filmed giving a masterclass to a young Chinese string quartet. He commended the players for their technique, but commented on a lack of passion and insight.

These caveats no longer hold true for many young Chinese musicians today, such as the Amber Quartet, winner of the prestigious Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition in Melbourne in 2013.

Its four members are recent graduates of Beijing's Central Music Conservatory and they impressed at their performance here with a slick show of musicianship and versatility.

Opening with Anton Webern's Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement, 1905), the foursome was totally at home in its late Romantic language, which is no more modern than Wagner or Brahms. The langorous and aching lyricism found a sympathetic voice with the players' individual lines, and together, the harmonic balance was close to perfect.

In Yunnan-born Chinese composer Zhang Zhao's First String Quartet (2001), the sense of interplay through its four short movements was more acute. The title, Totem, provided a clue. Its use of indigenous folk music, dance and vocal traditions was akin to Bartok's strings quartets, albeit with strong Chinese accents.

Violist Wang Qi was assigned the main melodic interest in the first two movements. His evocations of a Singer and a Musician (actual titles of these movements) were vivid and earthy.

Sonic effects were also aplenty. Bowing close to the bridge, pizzicatos in various degrees of forcefulness and tapping of the instruments' wood, all conjured a percussive vibe and an authentic rusticity of the Middle Kingdom.

In the slow movement, Sorceror, Yang Yichen's cello provided a drone that wailed through microtones, like a shaman's voice slipping within the cracks between keys.

The rhythmic finale, Drummer, was a wild dance, with echoes of the virile Dance Of The Adolescents from Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring.

Mendelssohn's Sixth String Quartet In F Minor (1847) was the German composer's last major work. Conceived in response to his sister Fanny's death, this was a far cry from his usually congenial musings. Opening with extreme vehemence, the quartet handled its outpouring of grief and rage with the requisite passion and accuracy. Agitated outbursts, alternating with calmer asides, aroused feelings of gripping tension and unease.

The Scherzo was no elfin dance, but darkly coloured and came with unremitting intensity. In the slow movement, lyricism reigned, but its reflection was one born of longing and regret.

The furious last movement had only one theme, hammered home with a frenzied obsession of finality, but not without a show of soloistic virtuosity from first violinist Ning Fangliang.

The Amber Quartet's encore was more subdued. Astor Piazzolla's slow and nostalgic Oblivion was played like the musicians meant every note.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'Slick show of versatility'. Print Edition | Subscribe