Valedictions from the Tokyo Quartet

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

The Toyko Quartet – Farewell Tour

MOZART – String Quartet “Hoffmeister” K.499: BARTOK – String Quartet No.6

BRAHMS – String Quartet No.1 Op.51 No.1

Tokyo String Quartet

Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 15th June 2013

Going to hear practically any concert is a kind of privilege for the listener – especially when one thinks about the “coming together” of the different things that contribute to a live performance. The “here-and-now” of it all has its own kind of spontaneously-charged electricity. Somehow, it doesn’t feel quite the same when listening to the same music played on a recording, and not even when the performers are the same as one has heard ‘”live”.

Having said this, there are concerts and concerts – and certain occasions do have a greater sense of “charge” than others, generated either in anticipation, or during the course of the performance, by the listener. One such occasion, on both counts, was the recent appearance in Wellington by the esteemed Tokyo Quartet, nearing the end of this, their “farewell” tour.

The group is disbanding after a 43-year-long career, one which has seen a number of changes of personnel, leaving one surviving original member to stay the course, violist Kazuhide Isomura. A second member of the group, violinist Kikuei Ikeda, joined the quartet just four years after their inauguration, which made him the next best thing an honorary foundation member – the other two quartet members, leader Martin Beaver and ‘cellist Clive Greensmith, joined the group in 2002 and 1999, respectively.

Despite the changes in personnel over the years, the group has maintained the highest standards of quartet-playing, winning critical acclaim for both their concertizing and their recordings, the latest (and, unfortunately, the last) of which features works by Dvorak and Smetana. Among previous recordings are integral sets of the Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok Quartets, along with single discs featuring a wide range of repertoire.

Here, tonight, it was Mozart, Bartok and Brahms whose music carried the Quartet’s valedictory sounds to us – I confess I would have preferred hearing some of their Beethoven to the Brahms – but that feeling wasn’t shared by people I spoke with after the concert. And it was interesting to experience the latter’s music in particular played by a group whose sounds were among the most refined and focused of any quartet’s I’d previously heard – interesting, because even with such advocacy I still found the Brahms quartet hard going, in particular the first two movements.

But ah! – the Mozart! The group’s playing reminded me a little of an account give by Artur Rubinstein of his hearing Sviatoslav Richter “live” for the first time: “It wasn’t anything special or out of the ordinary (recalled Rubinstein)……then at some point I noticed my eyes growing moist, and tears began rolling down my cheeks”. That wasn’t exactly what happened to me, but the effect of the Quartet’s playing took a similar course – a little way into the first movement I realized that I had actually lost myself in the music.  I felt I had been drawn in by the composer’s “world in a grain of sand” way with what sounded like the simplest of means having the utmost effect.

This was the “Hoffmeister’ Quartet K.499, given its name in honour of the work’s publisher, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, a friend of the composer’s and a fellow Freemason. Hoffmeister wrote in an advertisement regarding the work that it was “composed with an ingenuity…..that one not infrequently finds wanting in other compositions”. That “ingenuity” expressed itself in graceful ease throughout the first movement, the players here able to turn the music’s phrases in such a way that sweetness and energy worked hand-in-glove, with nothing forced or contrived. Everything had such focus, such purposeful strength, including the quietest, most delicate moments, so that the music’s argument seemed like a living, pulsating discourse.

I liked the delicate whisper of the development’s beginning and the surges of energy that followed, the players again with unfailing elegance delineating the ebb and flow of things – the movement’s “false” ending was delightfully brought off, giving its proper conclusion a kind of augmented satisfaction. The minuet provided a richly-uphostered tonal contrast, throwing into amusing relief the canonical chicken-like “cheepings” of the trio: while the slow movement demonstrated the group’s skill at sustaining long-breathed cantabile lines, with the solo violin “taking off” like a skylark towards the end.

As for the finale, the players again demonstrated their ability to delicately touch in detail at high speed, the music anticipating at some points the young Beethoven’s similarly questioning figures in the finale of his first Op.18 quartet. I loved the cellist’s delicious playing of his elevator-like runs, his elfin energies very much of a piece with what the other players were doing. In fact, so evanescent was the players’ articulation in places that the effect was almost impressionistic, though the lines and trajectories never lost their focus – Mozart was always Mozart!

It was with Bartok’s music that the original Tokyo Quartet made its mark internationally, and this performance of the Sixth Quartet reaffirmed the group’s position as among the foremost interpreters of these works. Even if I hadn’t know about this previous association, I could have assumed, from its Mozart-playing, that the Quartet would have similar affinities with Bartok’s charged sensibilities and the resulting range of expression in this particular work.

What an extraordinary work this last quartet is! – Bartok’s idea of presenting a theme at the very outset and a variant of the same at the beginning of each subsequent movement gives the work an amazing multi-faceted quality. The theme and its variations knit the structure together, but conversely provide a springboard for explorations of staggering variety across the movements. In a sense it was an entirely appropriate work for the quartet to play by way of a “leave-taking” – and the players’ extraordinary poise and controlled energy brought out the composer’s sharply-focused distillation of both his sorrow and resignation in the face of the difficulties that beset his final years.

After the interval, it was Brahms, the group giving us the first of the composer’s three String Quartets. I was hoping that, in light of the lucid, sweet-toned textures conjured up in many places by the Tokyo Quartet throughout the first half, that this would be the group that would “convert” me to these works. Alas, I continued to struggle with what I thought were the composer’s over-wrought textures, especially throughout the first two movements. There were times I felt “hectored” by the unremitting onslaught of the figurations, and frustrated at the composer’s own muddying of his own thematic lines. The fault is obviously mine – as with the Austrian Emperor who was famously supposed to have told Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his new opera “Il Seraglio”. People I spoke with at the concert’s end were enchanted with the music and the quartet’s playing of it.

Amidst the opaqueness of the Brahmsian textures I did discern certain lovelinesses – the opening of the slow movement, for example, conjured up in my mind fairy-tale scenes from the German forests, that is, before the first violin’s line, to my ears, began to over-fill the textures. I did enjoy the third movement’s romantic sense of disquiet, the music’s movement, underpinned by repeated notes from the ‘cello, engendering a feeling of unease, perhaps even of flight – the players brought out all the music’s drawing-room grace and elegance, and the Trio’s waltz had a folkish air of simplicity, with attractive, ear-catching pizzicati at certain points, making the return to the opening’s unease all the more telling.

The finale started with a searing unison, the Quartet then digging splendidly into the music’s forward-driving mood, occasionally bringing the opening unison’s figuration into the argument, but leavening the seriousness of it all with some lyrical song-bird harmonizing. The “turn for home” brought out even more trenchant energies and a forceful, unequivocal conclusion. Nevertheless, I was so pleased that the players felt sufficiently moved by the audience’s reception to offer a movement from a Haydn quartet as an encore – a Minuet from one of the “Apponyi” quartets (I think Op.74 No.1) – being, as the quartet leader Martin Beaver put it, “a return to where it all began” in string-quartet terms.

It seemed to me that here was quintessential quartet-playing – the music by turns called for great rhythmic character and energetic attack, followed by relaxed yet sharply-pointed detailing as the moods changed between main dance and trio, with an infinite variety of tones appropriate for each flicker of mood. As far as we in the audience were concerned, no better “goodbye” could have been spoken – a true privilege for the listener, indeed.




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