A magical, masterful Tokyo Quartet

After five weeks and hundreds of concerts presented by two major festivals, Ottawa’s summer chamber-music season came to a close on Saturday evening with a transcendent performance by the internationally renowned Tokyo String Quartet. Judging from the packed venue and the enthusiastic response to the Quartet’s three-part program, Ottawa classical-music fans are still a long way from experiencing any form of summertime chamber-music overload.

The Tokyo Quartet performed in shirtsleeves, but that was about the only thing casual about this concert, which featured masterful, if somewhat buttoned-down readings of works by Schubert, Bartok and Debussy. Unlike so many young (and not-so-young) performers who aim to reinforce their contact with audiences with the help of visually ostentatious display, the Tokyo Quartet is refreshingly loath to grandstand even during moments when the music takes a bombastic turn. Endowed with irreproachable technique and armed with four sumptuous Stradivariuses, they seize upon the attentive listener with the sheer force and integrity of their gimmick-free musical vision.

The opening movement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 10, itself an understated Allegro moderato, made for an impressive debut. With exquisite control, the ensemble gave gentle life to the composer’s intimate inspiration, calmly painting a soundscape at once diaphanous and sweetly lyrical. Though the scherzo seemed a touch cautious in light of Schubert’s prestissimo indication, the movement’s humorous accents were always tastefully weighted, offsetting any possible hint of uncouth sluggishness. Elegance reached an apex in the ravishing third-movement adagio, during which the Tokyo Quartet discreetly demonstrated that slavish adherence to the musical text does not preclude deep emotional and spiritual investment. Here the four musicians, superbly responsive to one another, channelled Schubert’s melancholic Innigkeit, and seduced an obviously rapt audience in the process.

For those few who may have found this portrait of Schubert-as-a-young-Romantic too sedately Biedermeier for their tastes, Bartok’s uncompromising String Quartet No. 4, with its expressionist self-indulgence and at-times manic intensity, offered welcome respite. Despite the wall-to-wall dissonance and the seemingly endless repertory of grotesqueries in Bartok’s score, the Tokyo Quartet did more than merely move from one musical effect to another. Throughout the five-moment work they crafted a compelling narrative which was grounded in a clear sense of musical direction and purpose. The Stravinskian thumping, the pathological frenzy, the obsessive pizzicatos were all firmly in place, yet this performance was one that clearly transcended the sum of its wildly disparate parts.

The second half of the concert was solely devoted to Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, a career-starter for the composer, and one quite removed from the somewhat vaporous aesthetic of his more mature works. Once again the Tokyo Quartet unassumingly unravelled the piece’s secrets; the carefully chiselled first movement, the bizarre impishness of the second, the coffee-house melancholy of the third, and the rowdy enthusiasm of the fourth were all beguilingly brought to life by this sober yet magical ensemble.

Christopher Moore, Globe and Mail
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