ROCKPORT — A frequent complaint about classical music is its museum-like character, its veneration of the past at the expense of new creations. Whether you find that charge damning, inaccurate, or beside the point, it’s worth asking what we realize from repeated performances of iconic musical works. I think we get not only the chance to revisit great art but also an opening to think differently about the history of the art form.
Take Beethoven’s Op. 18 string quartets, the sixth of which was on the Shanghai Quartet’s Saturday program at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Played one way, they are the epitome of Classical-era form and rhetoric; played another, they raise the curtain on the Romantic era, which would flower a few decades later.
The Shanghai opted for the latter conception and executed it brilliantly. Mercurial shifts in mood were accompanied by audible changes in color and texture. A brief unison scale in the slow movement sounded unusually mysterious. The Romantic aspect of the quartet is most evident in “La Malinconia,” the slow, dissonant intermezzo that precedes the sprightly finale. Near the end of the piece it returns, as if to remind you of what was just around the corner.
The Op. 59 quartets are Beethoven at his most Promethean, boldly exploding traditional models. The Shanghai’s performance of Op. 59, No. 1 was suitably gripping, nowhere more so than in the finale, whose labyrinth of twists and turns the players managed dexterously. Yet in the opening there was a welcome sense of Classical poise, even restraint, as if to preserve its links to the past.
Between the two came Samuel Barber’s Quartet, the fame of whose slow movement — the Adagio for Strings in its original guise — has unhappily overshadowed the rest of the piece. Heard in its proper context, stripped of its orchestral bloat, it comes off as heartfelt but not maudlin, a perfect link between the outer movements, which speak in a muscular dialect that balances the composer’s innate lyricism with an almost Bartokian edginess. The Adagio did emerge in an ideal visual setting, as dusk settled along the Cape Ann shore out the large windows behind the performers.
The Shanghai’s playing was superb throughout. They are unafraid to intervene in the music’s narrative flow when it serves an expressive purpose, as it did virtually everywhere. The quartet’s sound is plush but always translucent enough to appreciate each player’s distinctive qualities, Nicholas Tzavaras’s broad cello tone and Honggang Li’s darkly lyrical viola chief among them.
The encore was the nimble finale of Haydn’s Quartet in D major (Op. 20 No. 4), an effervescent way to clear the air of the sturm and drang that preceded it.
Presented by Rockport Chamber Music Festival
At: Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Saturday