in: Reviews

August 3, 2010

Refinement Tops Passion in Tokyo Quartet Concert

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The first chord of the Schubert String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, op. 34, showed we were in for something special at the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival concert at the First Congregational Church in Wellfleet on August 2. The quartet sounded as if it were created by a single instrument, one with a rich, dark tone. The Tokyo String Quartet, which performed it in a program with Bartok and Brahms, plays on a set of Stradivari instruments once owned by Paganini. They are extraordinarily well matched in timbre and loudness. The uniformity of timbre was complemented by the precision with which the quartet played together. There was such uniformity of expression it was difficult to see or hear which instrument was playing which line. The members of the quartet — Martin Beaver, violin, Kikuei Ikeda, violin, Kaxuhide Isomura, viola, and Clive Greensmith, cello, were joined by Jon Nakamatsu, piano.

The Schubert is a sprightly piece in a major key, and started the concert on a jolly note. It was quietly and gently played. Unfortunately there was a persistent 120Hz hum from a defectively mounted air conditioning fan motor that was strongly audible throughout the piece. Precisely between B-flat and C, it beat against the low notes of the cello and the viola, adding a waver and an off-harmony intended by neither the composer nor the performers. Efforts to turn it off proved futile, but it was less problematic in the two pieces that followed.

The Bartok String Quartet No. 4 is becoming one of my favorite pieces. The first of five movements starts with a strong outburst of dissonance. The second is equally dissonant, but with muted strings. The effect is one of anger – both overt and hidden. The movement that followed was lyrical, with solo cello or violin singing a song of sadness accompanied by minor key harmonies. The fourth movement – an allegro pizzicato played with great virtuosity and precisely together – lightened the mood. But in the final movement, the dissonance of the first movement returned with strength. The performance brought back strong memories of the performance by the Pacifica String Quartet at the New York Metropolitan Museum last March. The Pacifica played with a passionate ferocity – the Tokyo’s performance was more precise and refined. For this piece I prefer ferocity – but Bartok was still well served as discussed in the review here.

The Brahms Piano Quintet for in F minor, Opus 34 was a delight, although the playing was more refined than overtly exciting. Jon Nakamatsu raised the piano lid to full stick before starting the piece, but the balance between the four strings and the piano was perfect. The stage in the church is cramped, so the quartet spread out in front of the piano, facing the audience. I liked this placement very much, as it made it easy for me to localize the sound of each instrument even when they were all playing together. (I sat in the middle of the third row of the audience – I highly recommend sitting close in this venue.) I could hear each line independently nearly all the time. The match of the timbre of the instruments was constantly on display, as Brahms often starts a melody on instrument and then seamlessly passes it to another. The long song of the Scherzo sounded as if it were played by one instrument.

The piece demands power – and it got it. But both the quartet and the pianist were not afraid to play a beautifully balanced pianissimo. I was struck by the uniformity with which they used rubato, staying precisely together while letting the music swing. Brahms and the audience were the clear winners. The final presto brought down the house.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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