in: Reviews

August 4, 2011

Tokyo on the Cape: Haydn, Ives, Schumann

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In a concert that had the audience standing to applaud twice, the Tokyo Quartet, joined by one of the artistic directors of the series, the pianist Jon Nakamatsu, started off this year’s Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival at the First Congregational Church in Wellfleet on August 1. First came quartets by Haydn and Ives, with the Schumann Piano Quintet rounding out the evening. I was struck by the interplay among the music, the performers, and how the individual instruments they played affected the evening.

Haydn has had a pivotal role in the evolution of the Tokyo Quartet, which started at Juilliard in 1969 with four young virtuosi, each schooled originally in Japan.  Their recordings of Haydn quartets were breathtaking. Transparent, playful, engaging, they combined virtuosity with a relaxed sense of the classical tradition, an achievement in those days considered particularly remarkable for musicians whose roots were far from Haydn’s origins. Their achievements led the Corcoran Gallery to lend them four Amati instruments, which the quartet played until 1988.

Today, Kazuhide Isomura, the original violist, continues in the Quartet, as does Kikuei Ikeada, the second violinist, who joined five years after its inception. Clive Greensmith, cellist for the past twelve years, is only the Quartet’s second cellist, but Martin Beaver is their fifth first fiddler — although he’s now in his tenth year with them. Since 1995, as beneficiaries of the Nippon Foundation’s generosity, the Quartet has played on a quartet of Stradivari instruments once owned by Paganini. But it’s complicated: stringed instruments require periodic rest, recuperation, and even surgery. On Monday, humidity dictated the use of a cello built in Italy in the 1920s by the young Simone Sacconi, remarkable both as a luthier and restorer, who left Italy in the 1930s and reigned in Wurlitzer’s violin emporium in New York City almost until his death in 1973. And with Paganini’s1680 early Stradivari in the fiddle hospital, the second violinist was happily playing a different loaner: the “Huggins” Strad of 1708, a legendary “Golden Period” Strad, resplendent in a rich coat of varnish and sounding both warm and noble. Violin aficionados could “taste” its varnish wafting through the church. Beaver plays a “late” Strad of 1727. (At age 83, Stradivari was by then working in collaboration with his son, with ten more years to go before he made his last instrument.) It has a typically deep, dark and powerful sound, amplified by a powerful bow arm. Beaver is quite a virtuoso; he has remarkable “chops.” The last movement of the Haydn flew by with extraordinary speed and brilliance, and that’s just what it asks for. But in the first three movements, I found myself looking for a gentler, warmer touch from the leader. Might he try fussy gut strings, rather than the omnipresent “Dominants” that bring brilliance and stability? Moreover, the G-major Op. 77, No 1 is not one of those quartets that bursts with Haydn’s wonderful surprises and jokes, making it all the more important to find ample give and take with the dynamics and the tempi. A metronome would have been thrilled with the precision, but for my money, the Haydn needed more humor, more play. And I found myself missing the off-the-string spiccato that gave air and lightness to the Tokyo of forty years ago.

Listening to two men from Japan, a Canadian, and a Brit playing for just the second time in public a quartet composed at the end of the nineteenth century by an eccentric Yale sophomore from New England demonstrated the ample gifts of both the composer and the players. Carrying the subtitle, “From the Salvation Army,” the Ives Quartet No. 1 weaves together hymns in four movements that Charles Ives labels Chorale, Prelude, Offertory, and Postlude. A prodigy, composing from his very early years, Ives interweaves fugues, 3/4 versus 4/4 time, inversions, and all kinds of compositional flourishes that I can’t begin to understand. He also must have loved Dvorák, thirty years his elder.  The “Terzetto” penned by the Czech who enjoyed America came to mind more than once, and the final ending would have earned high marks from Antonin. Throughout, the Quartet played with concentration and far more freedom than one has a right to expect, given their recent acquaintance with this complex and demanding work. The inner voices came out and receded, the cello set a firm but graceful foundation, the “tenor” quality of the viola for which Paganini commissioned Harold in Italy was striking, and the first fiddle demonstrated the “growl” of a late Strad. Perhaps the greatest achievement was that the Tokyo made a dense work accessible. They spoke to the audience and gained a just reward when, in gratitude, the listeners jumped to their feet.

Nakamatsu plays a magnificent Steinway, restored, tuned and adjusted to his specifications, and resplendent in Wellfleet’s stunning Congregational Church. He told me that on the way to winning the Cliburn Competition (not something a German teacher generally does), his dream was to get to the semifinals and play a piano quintet with the Tokyo Quartet, his idols. Happily, he’s kept that up, and what an artist he is! He draws in the listener. He whispers, making you work to hear him, and then goes full throttle with a noble, never harsh sound. You feel you’re joining in a dance. The Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, is played often, to put it mildly, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to yet another rendition. But the opening words from the piano: warm, liquid, in constant motion within the beat, yet always maintaining a forward thrust, instantly heralded an extraordinarily fresh experience. This was piano playing at the very highest level, and the string players rose in every way to join their evening’s partner. The cello and viola riffed off one another, although the modern cello lacked the complexity in sound of the remarkable viola. The second fiddle rewarded its player’s every move, and the first fiddle both sang and roared. The ensemble was flawless, and all the players were clearly having a wonderful time. So, too, did the audience.

What a terrific concert to begin the August Festival!

Tom Delbanco is Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the sixteenth century to the present.

1 Comment

  1. It’s reviews like this that make BMI a must-read site for me. Thank you, Dr. Delbanco!

    Comment by Mark D. — August 6, 2011 at 9:40 am

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