in: Reviews

June 22, 2012

Full Gamut of Tonality from Tokyo String Quartet

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By now everybody knows that the renowned Tokyo String Quartet, founded in 1969, will retire at the end of the 2012-13 season. Its founding members, all graduates of the Toho School of Music in Tokyo — where they studied with Professor Hideo Saito, who left a profound mark on their approach to music —then came to New York for further study with members of the Juilliard String Quartet. Since then, as one of the first Asian performing groups to acquire an international reputation, the Tokyo Quartet not only set the example for Japanese musicians in the world at large, but also set an international standard for chamber-music playing and the string quartet in particular. The extraordinary efflorescence of string quartets today doubtless owes much to its example. The Tokyo’s playing has been distinguished by its beauty of tone, accuracy of intonation, and precision of ensemble; but, for all this perfection, it never fails to project a fully thought-out and felt conception of the composer’s intentions and the inner content of the music. Its playing is never dry, detached, or emptily virtuosic, and I have never left one of its performances feeling it had failed to go the limit with the music at hand.

Martin Beaver, who joined the Quartet in 2002, is its newest member. The others are violinist Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura, and violoncellist Clive Greensmith. For its final concert for the Tannery Pond Concerts on Saturday, June 16, at the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, the quartet offered a program that consisted of works entirely in a minor key: Haydn op. 74, no. 3 in G minor (“The Rider” or “Horseman”), Mendelssohn Opus 44, No. 2 in E minor, and Debussy op. 10, back in G minor. These three works, by a classical composer, a classically-minded Romantic, and a modernist, all supreme realizations of the form in their individual hands, show the full gamut of tonality which can be unfolded from these minor keys within the sets of conventions they represent. The Haydn — with the winning second subject of his first movement, first in B flat major, then in G major in the recapitulation; his noble E-major slow movement with its E-minor central core; the sprightly minuet in G major; and final rondo in G minor, which seems expeditiously to exhaust the force of the minor key in its development section and to conclude, after a dramatic final outburst, in G major — evoked a brilliant summer day with a richly cloud-dappled sky, which every so often casts the hills and meadows into shadow.

Mendelssohn’s op. 44, no. 3 is built not so much on a harmonious balance of minor and major in the natural flow of the world as on an actual conflict between the two modes. As in the Haydn, the more powerful attraction is established in the first movement, but here it is the minor, which for Mendelssohn is a mode of energy and full wakefulness. While E minor is firmly established from the onset of the primary subject, the elegiac phrases of its second half hint at yearning for the major; but as the theme unfolds, it receives a firm push into the minor, giving it an air of melancholy resignation. The exposition continues with active passagework in the minor, relieved by an entropic second subject in G major, which has no more power than to relax the primary thrust of the music. In the coda, this theme, like the elegiac part of the main theme, is drawn into the minor, pathetically releasing the music for its forceful conclusion in the tonic. A manic Scherzo in E major provides a total, almost arbitrary relief, until, in the trio, Beethoven-like interjections lead the music into a rather grave and troubled minor interlude — an amazing bit of writing — before the return of the scherzo and its gentle conclusion. There follows the slow movement, a sweetly lyrical song without words in G major — nothing but comfort and peace. The dark energies of the first movement take over in the vigorous Presto agitato in the tonic which concludes the work, not without a yearning second subject in the major, one of greater power than its cousin in the first movement, and after some wonderfully ambiguous development, almost seems to be leading the finale to a triumphant conclusion in the major. Mendelssohn’s compass, however, finds its true north, and the movement ends where it began.

Debussy, in his G-minor Quartet, which he wrote in 1893-94 — a key year for his career, when he began to emerge as a major figure on the Parisian music scene and took up Pelléas — returns to Haydn’s dappled world. The first movement is open and sunny. Its roots in G minor hardly restrain it from a fair round of other harmonic effects, and its conclusion with emphatic minor chords, while perfectly logical, appears arbitrary, like a dry, latter-day Parisian version of a Haydnesque joke. Everything in Debussy’s writing is playful and harmonically mobile. The Scherzo, inspired by gamelan music he heard at the Paris Exposition, fairly leaps through a series of tonalities, suggesting the alien modes of his models. The peaceful and reflective slow movement also travels far away, a sensitive hommage to Borodin’s subtle Russian exoticism. In the finale, minor and major join in a Janus-like duality, rapidly exchanging roles in this energetic and richly inventive music that concludes with a joyous G-major chord.

In this brilliant program, therefore, the three essays in the minor mode that the Tokyo offered us were written basically in the same language, but with vastly different intentions. At either end, Haydn and Debussy are ambiguous and playful, while Mendelssohn takes the minor mode most literally and seriously, developing his thoughts in a more constrained but still brilliant way. Haydn put together a model, without writing any of it necessarily in stone, which Debussy, with a naturally intuitive grasp of what Haydn was doing, took it all apart and let it fly to the winds.

All of these works, splendidly written for the four-way conversation of the group, benefited greatly from the Tokyo Quartet’s technical mastery, and each work in its own way proved exhilarating. A scheduling problem at the Darrow School, where the concerts are usually held, made it necessary to present the quartet at the venerable First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, fortunately endowed with fine acoustics — not as warm as the Tannery, but clear, bright, and present. There was no obstacle to our appreciation of the Tokyo Quartet’s crystalline sound. It fully realized the fantasy and grandeur of the Haydn, the intelligence of the Mendelssohn, as well as the wonderful qualities of his interactive passagework, and the openness and iconoclastic originality of the Debussy. This was an entirely worthy beginning to the Tokyo Quartet’s final year. We can only make the most of it. The Quartet will play three concerts at Norfolk this summer before resuming its seasonal travels for one last time.

Michael Miller, a writer and photographer based in Williamstown, MA, is editor and publisher of the Berkshire Review for the Arts, an online magazine which covers classical music, opera, theater, cinema, art, photography, architecture, travel, and food and drink, wherever they may be found.

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