The Shanghai Quartet has been a frequent guest in Salt Lake City, and every time the group has come it's always brought with it a diverse and interesting program ranging from the standard fare to pieces by today's foremost Chinese-American composers.
Wednesday, the foursome returned to Utah, this time accompanied by violist Roberto Diaz, the former principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra and now president of the Curtis Institute of Music.
The program in Libby Gardner Concert Hall while focusing on the musical giants Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms was different from past appearances, since it included two quintets that are without question two of the best in the genre.
The concert opened with the only quartet on the program, Beethoven's early op. 18, no. 5, in A major. In this work, the Shanghai showed its complete mastery of technique, in a performance that put the spotlight firmly on the quartet's classically structured framework. And that, unfortunately, was all that this performance was. It was a formal and rather stiff reading that was completely devoid of any emotional depth or human presence. The work needs a lot more than the Shanghai was willing to give it in terms of interpretation.
A world apart in interpretive and expressive terms was Mozart's glorious G minor Quintet, K. 516, with Diaz joining the Shanghai four. The G minor Quintet shows Mozart at the height of his compositional talent in the chamber medium. An absolute jewel, the G minor is a masterpiece in the manner in which Mozart explores the dark side of human emotions. Filled with anguish and pathos almost to the point of unbearable pain, the quintet is a powerful work that clearly foreshadows late 19th century romanticism.
The five players captured the dramatic power of the work in their reading. It had depth, intensity of expression and feeling. The group showed its human side here.
Particularly beautiful was the third movement Adagio, which was played with wonderfully nuanced eloquence and subtle lyricism.
While the G minor Quintet can rightly be called a study in despair, it does end on an optimistic note. The finale is an exuberant outburst of joy that actually puts the entire work in a proper perspective. And the players gave a vibrant reading that was bursting with ebullience and exuberance.
Closing out the concert was Brahms' delightful Quintet in F major, op. 88 ("Spring").One of his lighter works, the quintet exudes a lightheartedness not found all too often in Brahms' music. The five players captured the enthusiastic character of the work with their energetic and dynamic playing. It was an engaging interpretation that was fluid and nicely articulated.