Currently on its farewell tour, the Tokyo String Quartet performed its final Miami concert Tuesday night at Gusman Concert Hall.
For over four decades the Tokyo String Quartet has been a paragon among chamber ensembles. Each of the group’s members plays a Stradivari instrument, contributing to the foursome’s distinctive sound. Acclaimed concert and recorded cycles of the quartets of Beethoven and Bartok have achieved historical status among aficionados. With the coming retirement of long-time members violinist Kikuei Ikeda and violist Kazuhide Isomura, the quartet has decided to retire.
In the midst of an extensive farewell tour, the Tokyo presented a superb program of works by Mozart, Bartok and Mendelssohn Tuesday night for Friends of Chamber Music. A large and supportive audience filled the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall for an evening of great music-making that transcended the sentimentality and nostalgia that inevitably pervade such occasions.
Violinist Martin Beaver joined the quartet in 2002, ending a period of instability during which several changes in the first chair contributed to uneven performances. Beaver is a strong leader, a brilliant and agile instrumentalist with great ensemble skills. From the onset of Mozart’s “Hoffmeister” Quartet in D Major, K.499, the signature Tokyo sound was on full display—supple and exquisitely blended. In a reading that gave equal measure to the serenity and dramatic undercurrents of the Adagio and quirky turns of the vivacious finale, this classical masterpiece emerged silky-toned, aristocratic and vivacious. The Menuetto in particular sparkled with robust freshness and mirth.
Bartok’s pungent String Quartet No. 4 proved the evening’s high point. Unlike some groups, the Tokyo did not attempt to soften the score’s astringent modernism, the driving rhythm of the first movement here fiercely attacked with primitive harshness. The emotional turmoil of the slow movement, one of Bartok’s most intense night-music portraits, was projected with searing power. Heady folk roots propelled the Allegretto pizzicato, the strings plucked with dancing lightness. An acerbic Hungarian dance at headlong pace marked the Allegro molto finale, the climax of a stellar performance of repertoire that this quartet has truly made its own. So intense was the musicians’ performance that the cell phone that went off near the movement’s conclusion felt doubly disturbing.
The Quartet No. 2 in E minor is the work of an eighteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn but, like so many of the composer’s youthful scores, the music shines with melodic felicities and formal mastery. The players captured just the right measure of understated passion that pervades the work’s outer movements. In the airy scherzo, recalling the manner of Mendelssohn’s Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream score, the quartet’s bright, crisp articulation was exhilarating. Cellist Clive Greensmith and violist Isomura took songful flight in the Andante, the sonority deep and beautiful. A high voltage Presto brought a standing, cheering ovation.
The fourth movement from Haydn’s Quartet No. 59 in G minor (“Rider”) was a wry, light-hearted encore, and a farewell to Miami from a quartet that is going out at its peak.