In Japan, it is often said that “chamber music doesn’t sell”, but in fact the past month has been an exciting time for chamber music in Tokyo and the surrounding areas. We had a chamber music project by Lars Vogt and Friends at Toppan Hall, a six-concert Japan tour by the distinguished French group Trio Wanderer, a Shostakovich cycle by the Pacifica Quartet at Salvia Hall in Yokohama, the Julliard Quartet at Kioi Hall, and all this capped off by Suntory Hall’s own three-week festival “Chamber Music Garden” which includes a sell-out Beethoven cycle from the Japanese group Quartet Excelsior.

Shanghai Quartet
Shanghai Quartet

Suntory Hall’s “Chamber Music Garden”, now in its sixth year, takes places in the smaller “Blue Rose” Hall, a wood-panelled intimate venue seating 350-400 people. The oblong hall is used sideways during the festival, with the audience surrounding the ensembles. One of the highlights of this year’s programme, expanded from the usual two weeks to three weeks in celebration of Suntory Hall’s 30th anniversary season, was a series dedicated to musicians from Asia – Taiwan, South Korea and China – and I went to hear the concert by the Shanghai Quartet, a pioneering Chinese quartet with a long-standing international reputation.

 There wasn’t an obvious theme in their somewhat austere programme of Frank Bridge, Bartók and Brahms, apart from the fact that the works were all written in the turn of the twentieth century: Brahms’s second string quintet in 1890, and the Bridge’s Novelletten and Bartók’s first quartet in 1904 and 1908 respectively. There was a certain reflectiveness in both the Bridge and the Bartók which made the first half quite a sombre affair.

Bridge’s Three Novelletten, which the group recorded a while ago, is a student work written in the late-Romantic idiom (echoes of early Schoenberg and Debussy?), but the first piece in particular shows signs of originality, opening with meditative oscillating octaves by the first violin that recurs several times. Overall, the work is lyrical and homophonic and the four players moved flexibly as one. They caught the mercurial nature of the short Presto – the pizzicato opening was playful and they also articulated its chromaticism. The march-like final movement was infused with energy and vigour.

In stark contrast, Bartók’s first sting quartet is much more polyphonic and the four players need to be four equal voices, which was very much the case here. They are a very solid group with the two founding members, brothers Weigang Li (first violin) and Honggang Li (viola) who sit in the outer seats, providing the framework to which Yi-Wen Jiang (second violin) and Nicholas Tzavaras (cello) add their colours. It was a thoughtful performance that maintained intensity from the dark and brooding first movement to the energetic folk-influenced third movement, which was played with plenty of character.

One could say that the New York-based Shanghai Quartet are from the so-called American style of quartet playing (represented by the Julliard and Tokyo Quartets amongst others). So it was very apt that the former viola player of the Tokyo Quartet, Kazuhide Isomura, joined them for the Brahms’s String Quintet no. 2 in the second half (he was the quartet’s coach thirty years ago!).

The work is symphonically conceived, especially the outer movements, and the players projected a rich and warm sonority. The slow second movement, which opens with a gorgeous viola duet, was beautifully paced and filled with melancholic lyricism. On the other hand, the third movement felt a little too steady – one yearned for a little more lilt and light-heartedness. The Hungarian element in the lively finale provided a nice link to the first half.

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