T'ang Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Singapore's finest have been making a stir for several years.

Singapore's finest have been making a stir for several years. All the members of the T'ang Quartet trained at London conservatoires, so it was perhaps odd that Saturday's visit was their Wigmore Hall debut. The uncompromising programme reflected their substantial support as part of the Singapore Season, and so perhaps did the well-filled hall, though the quartet's enthusiastic reception sounded more like pleasure than duty.

The idea was to present three composers who suffered under totalitarian regimes. It would be stretching a point to talk of musical responses, since the Czech-Jewish Erwin Schulhoff wrote his String Quartet No 1 nearly 20 years before he died in a German concentration camp. All the same, it's a scary piece. The folk-like themes and range of string textures recall a simplified Bartok. Disturbed undercurrents work their way into vigorous dances and then take over in a desolate finale.

Such was the vitality of the T'ang's performance that Schulhoff's absence from the general repertoire seemed a mystery. Only an extended, symphonic breadth was missing from the music. The players, on the other hand, seemed to have everything it took.

Unlike many quartets, there isn't to the ear, at least, a dominant individual. Balance, poise, precision, a sense of in-style phrasing, you began to take for granted. Beyond the technical skills, they can judge how to be intense without excess, and the quiet Mahler-like dissolution at the end held the audience in silence well after the notes had finished.

Bright Sheng, the US-based Chinese composer, draws much of his inspiration from folk sources, absorbed when he was sent out on Cultural Revolution duties. His String Quartet No 3 shares many facets with other pieces of his: bustling dance, lamenting melody and a highly personal mix of Western and Chinese techniques. Bartok is clearly a role model, this time complete with the layers of counterpoint. But as with his orchestral work heard at last year's Proms, The Song and Dance of Tears, it was the broken-hearted collapse of the final minutes that made the strongest poetic impact, punctuated by the cello's booming evocation of Tibetan horns.

The ampler forms of Shostakovich's String Quartet No 9 worked their usual spell. Before you know it, music of inoffensive calm has evolved into the heights of rage and despair. The T'ang's playing at times felt almost too polished. They can hardly make an ugly sound, yet the finesse that had enabled them to take Schulhoff right to the edge didn't have the same effect, and the final stampede sounded jolly rather than grim. Still, that made Shostakovich's ironies, if such they be, all the drier.

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