Sunday (30 July 2017)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 August 2017 with the title "T'ang's mellower take on dark subjects".
Has it already been 25 years? It seemed a short while ago when four young string players from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra became Singapore's first professional string quartet. Their news-making stunts like posing topless for an Eight Days photo-shoot and or playing garbed in Ermenegildo Zegna suits brought notoriety, but these belied their total commitment and seriousness as an ensemble.
One will not find Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven quartets in a typical T'ang programme. However Shostakovich, Schulhoff and Bright Sheng made it, in a 2005 concert at London's Wigmore Hall. True to form, its 25th anniversary was commemorated with music by Leos Janacek, Aulis Sallinen and Marjan Mozetich.
Unusual themes form the basis of T'ang Quartet concerts, including darker subjects involving murder, mayhem and the macabre. At least two of these featured here, beginning with Czech composer Janacek's First String Quartet, inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata. In it, a woman who falls for another man gets killed by her jealous husband, the passion developing over Beethoven's eponymous chamber work.
Strained emotions were captured immediately in the quartet's entry, terse and severe, and answered by ominous replies. The 2nd movement's folkdance-like strains do little to relieve the tension, instead the wiry, metallic sounds of sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge) add to the unease. The opening theme is reprised in the finale, but the backlash is precipitous with the music tapering off to a dead end.
Just as dramatic, albeit differently, was Finnish composer Sallinen's Third String Quartet. Cellist Leslie Tan, the quartet's spokesman, was his usual chatty and engaging self. Prefacing each work with wry humour, he did much to break the ice. However, making sense of the title “Some Aspects Of Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March”, the quartet's sub-heading required more than mere words.
The work was a phantasmagorical set of variations on a droll children's song, opening with Ng Yu Ying's violin and Leslie Tan's cello unison, later sprinkled with pizzicatos from Ang Chek Meng's violin and Lionel Tan's viola. Getting more surreal with each variation, the quartet kept a straight face and stayed the course, mopping up each “special effect” as they came.
Contemporary Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich's Lament In The Trampled Garden, written in 1992 and the same age as the quartet, was not as grim as the title suggested. Opening in G minor, the 14-minute work took on a leisurely pace, working up anguish and a mild catharsis but never reaching the hysterics of a Shostakovich or Schnittke quartet.
In a short note by the composer who considered “dwelling on hurt a fruitless endeavour”, the music took on a casual and jazzy turn corresponding to his exhortation to “immerse in surrounding beauty...where your soul can only gain”. With this gentle benediction, T'ang Quartet - which has recorded an album of the same programme - let the audience off lightly. The foursome has mellowed, and perhaps so have we.