in: Reviews

June 28, 2010

Full House for Tokyo Quartet Opens Maverick Season

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The 95th Maverick Concerts season in Woodstock, NY, opened on Sunday, June 27, with a large, enthusiastic audience and a splendid concert. This is the 41st season for the Tokyo String Quartet, which has metamorphosed remarkably since its early days. As popular as the original, all-Japanese ensemble was, I had trouble with the bland perfection of its early performances. Now only half Japanese, and with only one of its founding members (violist Kazuhide Isomura) still in the ensemble, the Tokyo String Quartet has retained its remarkably uniform sound and accurate ensemble. It has also grown tremendously in expressive power. There wasn’t a hint of blandness in any of Sunday’s performances.

The program opened with Haydn’s Quartet in F, Op. 77, No. 2, his last completed string quartet. I don’t believe in the whole concept of “greatest” works, but I’d comfortably claim that Haydn never wrote a greater quartet than this one. The Tokyo Quartet’s approach to the first movement was graciously aggressive — if that sounds like an oxymoron, just hear them do it — with particularly strong input from cellist Clive Greensmith. I don’t recall ever hearing a Haydn Quartet performance with more presence from the cello, and the power of those inventive bass lines added greatly to the expressive texture of the music. The propulsive humor of the Menuetto (really a scherzo in all but name) was a treasure. First violinist Martin Beaver tossed off his demanding part in the finale with suave dexterity. This was wonderful music-making.

The appropriate transformation gave us a very different-sounding ensemble in Bartók’s Quartet No. 4. The opening Allegro had power and superb balance; the appropriate sense of mystery came through in the muted Prestissimo.; and the shimmering scene-setting in the third movement was extremely evocative. I found the Allegretto pizzicato a bit on the mild side, but that was obviously an interpretive choice. The concluding Allegro molto was played with full power and strong emphasis on its folk qualities. Again, great playing.

If the concluding work, Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3, in A, Op. 41, No. 3 seemed like a bit of a letdown, I would not fault the performers. One of Maverick’s themes for the summer series is a commemoration of Schumann’s 200th birth anniversary (the others are Chopin 200 and Barber 100), so it was appropriate to include this music. It’s a pretty piece, but in comparison with the Haydn and Bartók works it seems rather diffuse, at least until its bouncy finale. Since I found the TSQ’s performance, rich, ripe, and romantic, full in sound, very well balanced, and fervently powerful, I have to presume that the deficiencies in communication here are either Schumann’s, or mine, or both of ours. Still, this wasn’t a bad experience, just less memorable than the rest of the concert.

The Maverick season continues on Sunday, July 4, with the Shanghai Quartet playing music of Schumann, Dvorák, and Bridge. There’s loads of information on this season, including advance postings of the informative and literate program notes by Miriam Villchur Berg here.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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