A moving Toronto goodbye from the Tokyo Quartet

It’s a rare thing in music – or in life – to be able to end a career in peace and in triumph. But based on the powerful concert they gave Thursday night, courtesy of Music Toronto, it seems the famed Tokyo Quartet is doing just that.

After 43 years together, the members of the Tokyo Quartet announced a year ago this season would be their last. Their final concert will be in June. And for a group formed by four young Japanese students studying at Julliard in the late 1960s, Canadian musicians have played an important role. Over the years, three Canadians have occupied the first violin chair of the Tokyo Quartet – Peter Oundjian, currently music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, who took over from founding member Koichiro Harada in 1981; Andrew Dawes, who briefly replaced Oundjian in 1995 and Martin Beaver, who has occupied the first violin chair since 2002. And the Tokyo Quartet’s performing ties to this country, and this city, are very strong as well. Music Toronto estimates the group has played here 45 times in their career – an average of an appearance every year. No wonder the Quartet was to front a special fundraising concert for Music Toronto Friday evening, on this, its final visit to the city.

For the past two seasons, the Tokyo Quartet has devoted its Toronto concerts to the extraordinary six quartets of 20th-century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, and Thursday’s performance featured two of Bartok’s most fascinating excursions into the quartet form, the quizzical, knotty, dissonant Third, and the elegiac Sixth. With a late Haydn quartet thrown in for balance, the music-making of this powerful group was of the highest order imaginable, reminding us why music lovers find chamber music so intensely satisfying. Done right, it has no equal.

The two Bartok quartets sketched out a portrait of the European nightmare of the middle of the last century that still defines our world in many ways. It’s hard to imagine how audiences in 1927 dealt with the incredibly tense, dissonant, compressed musical world that Bartok created with his Third Quartet, a 15-minute, one-movement work that embodied the horror that the First World War had unleashed on an unsuspecting world. And the Tokyo Quartet spared us none of Bartok’s shaky, spiky, angry passion, grinding out his tight dissonances in the first and third sections of the work, spitting out his ferocious rhythms in the middle.

It was a different Europe, and a different Bartok in August of 1939, when the composer began his sixth and last quartet. The composer was in poor health, his mother was dying and the world around him was on the verge of a moral and physical apocalypse. By November, when he finished the piece, that apocalypse had begun, and Bartok’s music reflected his turmoil. The Sixth Quartet runs through many emotions, but a stubborn awareness of ending and finality illuminates them all. Again, the four members of the quartet brought the musical and dramatic moments to life with passion and excitement, especially Kazuhide Isomura, the last original member of the group, whose gorgeous viola begins the work, and whose steady, weeping alto voice provided the work with its most haunting moments.

That haunted goodbye we heard to end Bartok’s last quartet was, thankfully, not matched by the goodbyes the Tokyo Quartet received from a standing, cheering audience. All farewells are sad, especially saying adieu to a group so obviously at the peak of their powers, but this one had a feeling of work completed, and completed well and – in the end, perhaps the greatest gift the Tokyo Quartet has lavished on us – the sense that such a satisfying farewell is possible.

Robert Harris, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
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