in: Reviews

November 2, 2008

A welcome visitor to Boston: Tokyo String Quartet has lost none of its clarity, precision

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The musicologist Homer Ulrich once calculated that Haydn composed more than 2,500 individual movements during his long life. That is an average of about one movement per week, and almost all are creations of genius. We were therefore fortunate to hear some of Haydn’s best movements for string quartet, as well as equally good ones by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, performed by the Tokyo String Quartet at Jordan Hall on November 1. This quartet is always a welcome visitor to Boston. It has performed 18 concerts for the Celebrity Series of Boston since 1974, and a warm and appreciative audience was on hand at Jordan Hall to celebrate the ensemble’s fortieth anniversary this season.

Granted, the quartet has gone through quite a few personnel changes since it was founded in 1969, and only one of its original members, the violist Kazuhide Isomura, is still with the ensemble. Second violinist Kikuei Ikeda joined in 1974, cellist Clive Greensmith arrived in 1990, and founding first violinist Koichiro Harada was replaced by a succession of players: Peter Oundjian (1981), Andrew Dawes (1995), Mikhail Kopelman (1996), and the current leader, Martin Beaver (2002). Judging by what we heard this night, the quartet has lost none of its trademark clarity and precision.

Their program opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in G major, op. 76, no. 1. Haydn started writing quartets as a young man in his 20s, and he didn’t stop until 1803, at the age of 71, when he composed part of the String Quartet in D minor, op. 103. Failing health prevented Haydn from completing this work, and when it was published in 1806 with only two movements, he asked them to print a reproduction of his visiting card at the end. The words on that card, which come from Haydn’s own song Der Greis (The Old Man), are particularly fitting: “Gone forever is my strength, old and weak am I.”

In opus 76, no. 1, however, we find Haydn in full command of his genius and abilities, and the Tokyo String Quartet rose to the occasion. The quartet was particularly impressive in the final movement, playing Haydn’s surprising pauses and melodic and harmonic shifts with refinement and a subtle sense of humor. There were, however, a few unintentional surprises.  One was an occasional lapse in intonation, something that happens to all of us who are human. Of greater concern, however, was the lack of a consistent legato and sustaining power in Mr. Beaver’s bow arm. This often caused him to be overbalanced by the other members of the quartet.

The second work on the program was to have been Bartok’s fifth string quartet, but instead we heard Beethoven’s String Quartet in G major, op. 18, no. 2. The decision to replace the Bartok was completely understandable: Mr. Isomura had undergone surgery in San Franciso only the week before to repair a partially detached retina, and it is difficult enough to play the “Bulgarian” rhythms of 4-2-3 and 3-2-2-3 in the Scherzo of the Bartok with two good eyes!

The quartet’s performance of the Beethoven was energetic and powerful, although a bit too straight-ahead for my tastes. One might have hoped for a bit more passion and freedom, and a better sense of the architectural elements and rhetorical gestures that make a Beethoven work so meaningful. Nevertheless, Mr. Isomura’s skills seemed undiminished by his surgery, and the cello playing of Mr. Greensmith was exquisite, in this work and throughout the concert.

The program concluded with a spirited performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D major, op. 44, no. 1, written in 1838. This was a happy and peaceful time in Mendelssohn’s life, especially because he had just married his wonderful wife Cécilia, and a decidedly classical feeling pervades many of his works from the period. No longer do we hear the soaring melodic lines and youthful romantic exuberance of the Octet for Strings in E-flat major, op. 20 or the overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream, op. 21. In the String Quartet, op. 44, no. 1 the opening melody spans only a tenth and is written in three symmetrical phrases of four-bar units. It is as if, to quote the noted Mendelssohn biographer Larry Todd, “Puck has matured…into a respectable complacent Bürger.”

Mark Kroll, a harpsichordist well known to Boston music audiences, has toured extensively as performer, lecturer, and leader of master classes in Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He has an extensive discography and list of publications. His website is www.markkroll.com

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