The Tokyo String Quartet: Climbing Everest with Vesuvian Zest

Tokyo String Quartet

  • Beethoven Quartets, Op. 127 & 130
  • Music Toronto
  • At the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto on Thursday

Writing a 1968 double-barrelled review of Joseph Kerman's book The Beethoven Quartets and, tangentially, of the late quartets themselves, Igor Stravinsky, the 20th century's greatest composer, averred: "These quartets are my highest articles of musical belief ... as indispensable to the ways and meanings of art ... as temperature is to life."

The Tokyo String Quartet, in the fifth concert of its six-concert cycle of the complete Beethoven Quartets (there are 17 of them, if one counts the Great Fugue as a separate piece), performed two of the late ones for Music Toronto on Thursday night.

Fit, classy, seasoned, impeccable, the Tokyo scaled the dizzying heights of that Mount Everest of the repertoire - the Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, with its original finale in place, the nearly insurmountable, bow-shredding Great Fugue - and never put a foot wrong.

One approaches with some trepidation performances by a group that has been before the public for more than 40 years: We can admire their solidly won fame and full measure of experience, but fear the possibility of the mailed-in, the jaded, the stale.

No such fears were realized Thursday. Not only was the Tokyo's Opus 130 vigorous, limber and fresh, but its Opus 127, which opened the evening, also had a reading both fine and luminous. To be sure, the Tokyo's players have undergone change. Only Japanese violist Kazuhide Isomura remains of the founding four from 1969. Japanese second violin Kikuei Ikeda came on board in 1974, English cellist Clive Greensmith in 1999, and Canadian first violin Martin Beaver in 2002.

This group has reached an ideal balance in their thinking and their individual virtuosities, and they brought much intuitive strength to their readings of this marvellous music.

The poised and lyrical Opus 127, with the sober and songful variations of its beautiful second movement - Adagio - and the focal Vesuvian zest of its glittering third (Scherzando vivace) sat securely and sharply contrasted in the Tokyo's performance.

All six movements of the phenomenal Opus 130, including the restored finale, the Great Fugue, found perfect individuality within an astonishing integrity. The second-movement scherzo (Presto) and the gently buoyant fourth movement (Alla danza tedesca) alleviate with childlike grace the iconoclastic tensions of the opening movement (Adagio/Allegro) and the sixth movement, the violent storm of the Great Fugue. The gracious third movement (Andante) and the ravishing fifth (the famous Cavatina; on this occasion very movingly played) interject two kinds of repose: simple and profound.

The best aspect of the Tokyo's communication of this extraordinary quartet was that it seemed to convey Beethoven's reasons for its unprecedented six-movement design, so that even the grossly prolonged hybrid of contrapuntal freedom and variational transformation that is the Great Fugue came across, if not as natural, then as supernatural.

One could only agree with Stravinsky that this final, shocking effusion of unchained genius is "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever"; and with the Tokyo Quartet, who have decided that it belongs back in the work for which Beethoven originally conceived it before substituting a milder finale and publishing the fugue separately as Op. 133. It was good to hear it in its rightful home.

Ken Winters, Globe and Mail (Toronto)
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