September 29 Tokyo String Quartet

Tokyo Sting Quartett Photo: Marco BorggreveTokyo Quartet returns to Syracuse, bids farewell to some old friends

Now in its final season, the venerable ensemble plays SFCM for the last time — ending a remarkable 44-year journey with flashes of brilliance… and signs of fatigue

By David Abrams

No sooner had the final two chords of Schubert’s massive G-Major String Quartet sounded than the oversized audience packing the Lincoln Middle School Auditorium Saturday evening jumped to its feet with vociferous shouts of approval.

It couldn’t have ended any other way.

The Tokyo Quartet’s farewell concert marked the end of a lengthy and rewarding association with Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music — an ongoing love fest that first bonded the two organizations in 1974 and stretched on for more than a dozen visits afterwards.  And while the level of Saturday’s performance may have fallen somewhat short of the bar set by this ensemble over the course of its three decade-plus history, this was a concert worth remembering, if only for its parting image: four distinguished and beloved performers taking bows as they prepare to ride off into the sunset of chamber music immortality — a true Kodak moment.

Tokyo’s warm and amiable blend of tone was at once evident during the opening Allegro di molto of the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 no. 4 that launched the three-work program. Such homogeneity of tone is no doubt due in part to the matching set of Strads that the four players have been using since 1985.  (The instruments are on loan from Japan’s Nippon Foundation.)  But it takes more than great equipment to produce great sounds.

A professional string quartet’s tone is developed, cultivated and refined over a period of years — which explains why so many great quartets, past and present, have a distinctive uniqueness and consistency of tone that set them apart from the others.  And few string quartets can stand up to the cohesive blend and uniformity of sound heard Saturday from the Tokyo Quartet.  The ensemble’s sumptuous tone was not enough however to bring this Haydn Quartet to life.  Despite some impressive individual efforts and a technically tidy ensemble, the performers never quite captured the magic of the moment.

To be sure, Tokyo enjoys an outstanding reputation for its stylistic interpretations of “Papa” Haydn.  (Their recording of the Opus 76 Quartets remains the benchmark against which I measure any quartet’s ability to play Haydn.)  And in the Quartet in D Major, the players seemed to do most everything right.  At least on paper.  Tempos in the final (Presto scherzando) movement were brisk and the 16th-note runs cleanly articulated; the highly syncopated Menuetto was snappy and rhythmically secure (and buoyed by Clive Greensmith’s lovely cello solo in the Trio section); and the slow movement (Un poco Adagio affetuoso) variations were agreeable enough.

So what could possibly have been missing?  Inspiration.  Chemistry.  The spontaneity of ensemble that makes the whole greater than the sum of the individual parts.  For whatever reason, the players never appeared to open throttle, let go and join in the fun.  It’s not that this was a poor performance of a Haydn quartet; it was actually perfectly acceptable.  But acceptable doesn’t measure up to what we’ve come to expect from the Tokyo Quartet.

Whatever magic may have been lost on the Haydn reappeared for Anton Webern’s Fünf Sätze (Five Pieces) Op. 5, a complicated and thorny work the players appeared eager to sink their teeth into — and deeply, at that.

Dating from 1909, this set of pieces that string together as a quartet is not dodecaphonic, although the writing here makes free use of atonality (Webern didn’t use pitch serialization until 1925).  And typical of the composer, these pieces are brief and the feelings muted — as if the profuse emotions of late German Romanticism had been drastically reduced to a finely distilled essence of musical timbre, devoid of any degree of sentimentality.

Tokyo gave an alert, faithful and determined rendition of these expressionistic miniatures — making the most of Webern’s angry pizzicatos, tremolos, harmonics, sul ponticello and muted strings effects.  They faithfully observed Webern’s expansive dynamic spectrum that runs the gamut from exaggerated fortissimos to “barely audible.”  And while this work may hardly be described as a crowd pleaser, listeners appeared attentive and in-sync with the players, who cut deeply into the core of the abstract writing to capture the composer’s anguish, urgency and grief (this was written in the aftermath of the death of his mother).

I had high hopes for a tour de force (or at least a second wind) in Schubert’s mammoth Quartet in G Major D. 887, coming as it had after the resolute performance of the Fünf Sätze.  But if the performance of the Haydn was less-than-inspired, the players in this warhorse appeared fatigued — as if the jam-packed schedule of The Tokyo Quartet’s final season were beginning to take its toll.

Ensemble among the four players was not especially tight in the weighty and dramatic opening movement, as the players tended to rush the strongly over-dotted rhythmic motifs that permeate the movement.  A cautious tempo in third movement Scherzo (hardly the Allegro vivace indicated by the composer) dampened an otherwise exciting movement, and the reliable and dependable first violinist Martin Beaver experienced some pitch problems in the altissimo register passages during the first three movements.

There were nonetheless the familiar flashes of brilliance we’ve come to expect from the Tokyo Quartet, such as Greensmith’s sinuous cello solo in the lyrical Andante movement and a well executed final movement Allegro assai — which generated the first-rate playing we’ve come to expect from this ensemble.

While this may not have been The Tokyo Quartet’s finest two hours, they remain a class act — and the model upon which other such ensembles may be judged.  And they will sorely be missed.

Details Box:
What:  The Tokyo String Quartet

Who: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: 7:30 P.M., Saturday September 29, 2012
Time: Two hours, including intermission

Next: Ying String Quartet with pianist Elinor Freer, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20
Ticket prices:Regular $20, Senior $15, Student $10
Information: call (315) 682-7720