Watching the Olympics these days, at times one watches the bloom fading in a renowned athlete and wishes he or she had quit while ahead. Marking a watershed in the world of string quartets, the Tokyo Quartet is disbanding soon, and one wondered if would be showing signs of wear. Not the case! After a splendid concert on July 30th in Wellfleet’s Congregational Church, I can report that the Tokyo is quitting at the top of its game
It was a bittersweet evening. The Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival (11 concerts are remaining) has been the Tokyo’s host for the past four years, and the farewell concert, was sold out as have been the previous three. The tributes included honors from a Japanese diplomat, and gifts to the players of live lobsters (to be picked up following the concert.) In return, the Tokyo offered a sunny Haydn quartet, Opus 20, No.4 in D Major, the path-finding Five Movements for String Quartet, op. 5, by Webern, and Schubert’s extraordinary Quartet No.15 in G Major, D. 887.
The Haydn, splendidly played, was a study both in the evolution of the Tokyo and in the tension between the modern-day supremely athletic players and old-schoolers as yet unconvinced that loudest and fastest is the way to go. The Tokyo, founded in 1970, burst onto the national scene with a remarkable recording of Haydn quartets, played at the time on the quartet of Amati instruments entrusted to them by the Corcoran Collection. Crystalline, light, lively, and filled with humor, the recording won raves and bolstered a meteoric rise into the first ranks of quartets internationally. Times have changed, and so have their players. Of the four players at Toho Gakuen School of Music destined in the late 1960s to form Japan’s pre-eminent quartet, only the original violist, Kazuhide Isomura, remains. Kikuei Ikeda, the second fiddler, joined shortly after their start, but the top and the bottom turned over more often, with Clive Greensmith taking over the cello in 2000, and Martin Beaver becoming the fifth first violinist in 2002.
What results is a fascinating combination of two schools. Beaver and Greensmith are major virtuosi. Their vibrato is intense, their bow arms are fast and free, the dynamic range in their playing is wide, and their fingers move like lightning. In striking contrast, while they too have total mastery of their instruments, their inner-voice colleagues are more restrained. They fade into the background happily, pushing their sounds primarily when the composer asks them to lead. They delight in dialogue with one another, and their voices bring enormous clarity, aided by remarkable intonation.
The first three notes of the Haydn show how the Quartet’s thinking has evolved. The slurred quarter notes were rich, warm, and pushed ahead to introduce the first thematic material. My memory of the original Tokyo suggests that these notes would have been lighter, more spaced, and calmer, drawing the audience in, rather than proclaiming their import. Different strokes for different folks (pun intended)! But these observations are not meant as criticism, and indeed the interplay of the outer and inner voices was fascinating. The slow movement was beautiful: elegant, calm, and filled with variety. Beaver, who I felt last year (my BMInt review is here) was perhaps too much the leader, blended beautifully. He played some of the variations with a wondrous pianissimo triggered by a tiny amount of bow. Sitting at the back of the church, I heard every note clearly (his Strad didn’t hurt that effort). The third movement may have missed a bit of Haydn’s humor (there’s invariably a joke or two in his chamber works), but the last movement was a virtuosic whirl that was breathtaking. For my ears, perhaps too breathtaking: the charming back-and-forth between the instruments went by so fast that even though I happen to know this quartet well, I missed some of it.
The Webern was just plain terrific. The five moments are an assembly of miniatures that make no sense in their disparate parts and caused a caustic uproar when first played in Salzburg in the early 1900s. But to tastes seasoned over the past 100 years they unite magically, and the Tokyo played them as if it’d been doing so daily for the past 10 years. A special moment came when Isomura raised his viola (the Stradivari for which Paganini commissioned Berlioz’s Harold in Italy) and took the lead for a series of notes that made inexorable sense for no apparent reason.
After intermission came Schubert’s G-Major Quartet that may eclipse even “Death and the Maiden” and the “Trout.” Fashions rise and fall, and for many years it was rarely heard, but right now it’s much in vogue, with performances offered recently by several quartets. This speaks to the exemplary physical conditioning of current quartets. For this work, Schubert wrote parts that seem designed to benefit rheumatologists, neurologists, and even orthopedics. There is ubiquitous tremolo for the bow arm, mixed with the need for lightning-fast articulation from both the bow and left hand. How the Tokyo played with such energy and concentration without their right arms falling off is beyond me. They took some cuts: their total time elapsed was about 42 minutes, according to my cellular stopwatch, and a rapid survey of available recordings indicates a range of about 42 to 52 minutes, with those quartets composed of older players coming a lot closer to the Tokyo in total elapsed time! But the music ebbed and flowed, with again unusual use of true pianissimo playing, and there was a freedom and risk-taking in Beaver’s playing that was quite different from what I heard from him in recent concerts, playing well worth a few poorly tuned notes. Again the top and bottom rose well above the second fiddle and viola, and while ordinarily one may want the inner voices to tussle with the leaders, the balance had its own fascination and worked just fine.
A side note on this year’s Tokyo instruments: Last year, the second fiddle was a “loaner” from the Nippon Foundation that owns the four Stradivari the Tokyo plays. It was the “Huggins” Strad, one of the truly extraordinary “Golden Period” Strads that has a voice with a built-in megaphone. It led to quite a different balance, and in retrospect, some of the stridency I felt in Beaver’s playing may have been his valiant effort to project above the violin booming into his left ear. And this year I admired Greensmith’s playing even more than last year, while learning from him at intermission that he was playing his second instrument made by Simone Sacconi (1895-1973), the remarkable luthier who was a preeminent pedagogue, restorer, and maker in the United States in the second half of the last century. A magnificent cello that had no trouble staying with its illustrious partners. … But Greensmith confessed he was using it in part to help himself emotionally with the weaning process from the Strad he’ll soon need to return.
There was the now-customary standing ovation, but this time accompanied by stamping feet that some said was a first for Wellfleet. As they scatter, the Tokyo leaves not only remarkable memories, but also questions. Which quartet will win the next Yale residency? To whom will the Nippon Foundation next award stewardship of the “Paganini” Stradivari quartet? As the Tokyo players move on to careers as teachers in California and parts yet to be chosen, who will be lucky enough to be their students and perhaps move their legacy forward? And most importantly, will they contemplate an East Coast reunion in the future?
Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis 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 since the sixteenth century.