in: Reviews

November 20, 2010

Tokyo SQ and Harrell: Focus on Perfection

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The chamber music division of the Celebrity Series presented the eminent Tokyo String Quartet, with guest artist the equally eminent cellist Lynn Harrell, in a Jordan Hall program on November 19 with string quartets of Mozart and Barber and the incomparable C Major quintet by Schubert. The Tokyo String Quartet, despite its name, was established in the US in 1969 and is in residence at Juilliard. Of the quartet’s founders, only violist Kazuhide Isomura remains; violinist Ikeda Kikuei joined in the 1970s, cellist Clive Greensmith, a Briton, joined in 1999, and violinist Martin Beaver, a Canadian, in 2002. Long-standing ensembles like this, however, operate on the “grandfather’s axe” principle: no matter that all the parts have been replaced at one time or another, it retains its essential character. This is true even though the actual performance styles and sounds evolve.

Thus, despite the presence of only one founder and two non-Japanese members, one can speak of the TSQ as having a forty-two year existence, with all the benefits and some of the drawbacks this entails. It was, for example, a delight to watch these players communicate with the very slightest of gestures — an eyebrow raised, a nearly undetectable nod — and to hear the four instruments carry on a single thought, like married couples who can finish each other’s sentences (with much less annoying consequences, we hasten to add). The paradigm of this level of unity in Friday’s concert was the opening work, Mozart’s Quartet No. 21 in D, K. 575. This was the second of Mozart’s three completed “Prussian” quartets, written, maybe on commission and maybe in hope of one, from King Friedrich Wilhelm II, a talented cellist. According to Steven Ledbetter’s program note, Mozart found himself in a quandary with these quartets, wanting on the one hand to ingratiate himself with the king by featuring his instrument, but on the other hand not wanting to unbalance the equality of lines that is the hallmark of the classical string quartet.

The solution, such as it was, was to give the cello the occasional leading melodic role or make it part of a featured duet with viola or first violin. In the event, in this case the result was perhaps not Mozart’s most inspired late work, except to some degree in the finale. With this dilemma the TSQ put all its focus on perfection of execution: the opening melody, for example, appeared as if magically out of nowhere, and the finale, which gave them more material to work with, demonstrated an exhilarating back-and-forth. For the most part, however, the watchwords — here and elsewhere in the program— were elegance and restraint. Unfortunately, in this case the result was, despite the high polish and sometimes (as in the slow movement) preternatural sweetness, a bit muffled and diffident. We have seldom heard an exposition repeat taken as precisely like the first go as happened in the first movement, which we count as expressively somewhat stunted. Maybe the solution to the question of what to say about Haydn and Mozart quartets that justifies having them be the eternal curtain-raiser is to give them a rest, and offer something not too deep but more overtly colorful, taken perhaps from the œuvre of Villa-Lobos or Milhaud?

OK, it’s not fair to criticize for what they didn’t play, so we will express gratitude for the TSQ’s undertaking the one and only quartet by Samuel Barber, which in its original form remains more heard of than heard, at least in live performance (there are numerous recordings). As is now well known, the second movement became, in a string orchestra version Barber made at Toscanini’s behest, his most famous work, the Adagio for Strings. In its proper context it is a miracle of judicious contrast, an oasis of early calm and gathering passion set against the outer movements’ mostly headlong rush. Aside: we say “outer movements,” but at various times, as in Friday’s program, the last one is referred to as an epilogue to the Adagio, and in any case it is like a delayed coda to the first movement, using its melodic materials. The performance by TSQ contained some interesting features: in the first movement they emphasized Barber’s complex counterpoint as much as the music’s alternating vigor and lyricism, and the movement’s final notes were taken much faster and quieter than commonly heard, very possibly to set up a contrast with the more sustained and emphatic close of the whole work. However, even more than in the Mozart, we felt a degree of reticence at climactic moments that blunted the emotional impact of the composition. This was especially true in the Adagio, where despite brilliantly conceived pacing, the climactic moment, with tight sonority at the top of the instruments’ ranges, lacked the sheer volume to set up the almost orgasmic release immediately following. We would, however, be remiss not to praise not only the carefully plotted development, but also exquisite perfection of execution in bringing out the Adagio’s underlying triplet pulse (often times offset by duplets), subsumed within complex compound meters.

The second half of the program consisted of one work, the Schubert “cello” Quintet in C Major, D. 956, considered by many to be his greatest chamber work. The TSQ have been enthusiastic collaborators with the world’s leading soloists, and on this occasion brought along one of our favorite cellists, Lynn Harrell. It is always interesting to watch soloists work in chamber contexts where they do not act in a featured capacity. Schubert’s peculiar scoring — very few composers have successfully used an extra cello rather than a viola in a string quintet — exploits the second cello not for soloistic purposes, but as a means of combining more registral (high and low) and articulative (legato arc and pizzicato) effects simultaneously than otherwise possible.

It became immediately apparent that Harrell’s participation was going to shake things up a bit. Everyone’s sound was more robust than before, although in the exposition in the first movement — though not in the recapitulation — Harrell’s pizzicati seemed a bit hollow. There might have been a bit of disconnect in style, as his gruffness in bowed passages appeared to pull the quartet where it didn’t quite want to go; at some points in the first movement we thought we might be listening to late Beethoven rather than late Schubert. On the whole, though, we were very happy with this performance, technically (it goes without saying), interpretively, and collaboratively. The second movement opened with an absolutely perfect stillness, all the better to contrast the impassioned middle section. The scherzo’s rambunctious horn-call theme, and the trio’s solemnity, could not have been better. The finale’s “answer” to the scherzo trio’s insistent questions, which the scherzo’s da capo simply ignores, of “what’s it all about?” is worldly delight, in the form of polkas and contradances, tinged with hints of tragedy in Schubert’s patented manner. These the ensemble rendered eloquently, earning the now sadly ubiquitous standing O at the final (implicit) Neapolitan cadence.

That last bit of the Schubert gives us the opening to appreciate a bit of very astute programming by the TSQ. Ledbetter’s erudite notes dwelled extensively on the composer’s structural use of Neapolitan relationships, not just in cadences but in tonal blocs throughout the quintet. The final descending minor second, as famous an ending as there is in classical music, had its parallel in the program in the notes that ended the first and final movements of the Barber. We approve.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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