When I first heard the Tokyo String Quartet four decades ago, I didn’t enjoy its playing. The ensemble performed with what seemed like perfect technique, but I found its interpretations too controlled and joyless. I had many vehement discussions with other music lovers, who thought the playing was ideal. Everything changed in 1981, when the founding first violinist retired and was replaced by Peter Oundjian. He brought a dimension of warmth and humanity that have remained with the group ever since, even after Oundjian had to retire from violin playing in 1995. (He has since gone on to a successful career in conducting and is now music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.)
I have many memories of this ensemble, most of them positive. Even during its earliest era, when the TSQ had hit the “big time,” it continued to perform regularly at Maverick. One year, it presented the Maverick board with just one repertoire choice, an all-Bartók program. At first the board rejected the proposal, fearing it was not something the audience would accept. Eventually, though, saner counsel prevailed, and the concert did fill the hall.
Perhaps it is the result of decades of improvement in instrumental technique, or possibly the aging of the ensemble, but I no longer find the TSQ on the cutting edge of technical perfection. That’s all to the good. The ensemble is certainly precise enough, without calling attention to itself through exaggerated emphasis on clarity.
The Maverick concert on Sunday, September 16, in Woodstock, NY, provided the kind of memories I would want to have of this ensemble, with a varied program and performances on its highest level. The concert began with Haydn’s wonderful Quartet in D, op. 20, No. 4. In the first movement, the TSQ played with the maximum permissible degree of drama, very intense without violating the bounds of the music. The slow movement conveyed a sad wisdom. The bizarre rhythms of the outer sections of the “Menuet alla Zingarese” (it’s not really a minuet at all) were emphasized without forcing. The finale, “Presto e scherzando,” was about as fast as it could be without becoming hectic, reckless yet composed, with beautiful clarity and dynamics. This was superb Haydn playing, taking the composer at his value and never sounding like a polite “Papa Haydn.”
It’s a pity the TSQ hasn’t recorded any Second-Vienna-School music – and it’s too late now. Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet made the best possible case for this music. Being of semi-advanced age (68), I can easily remember a time when Webern’s music was considered “difficult” and downright weird. Decades of listening and the improved comprehension of performers have revealed beauty in this music that we might never have suspected decades ago. This performance concentrated on the lyricism of Webern’s music and made it sound quite romantic without losing any of the edge of Webern’s compression and dissonance.
The opening of Schubert’s Quartet in G, D. 887, seemed to come out of nowhere, beginning with so subtle a crescendo that I wasn’t certain exactly when the music began. Throughout this performance, we heard such beauty combined with a full expression of the radical nature of the music. Unlike most of Schubert’s large instrumental works, most of which are still under-valued, this Quartet isn’t based on typical Schubertian melodies; it’s mostly built from smaller motifs, although still a large structure (three quarters of an hour in this performance). Some of the harmonic clashes are extreme even for Schubert, and this performance brought them out vividly. The powerful rhythmic emphasis of the Scherzo was almost startling in its ferocity. This was truly a great and memorable performance. It also helped explain why the TSQ has decided to disband at the end of the current season. Its members want to go out while they are still on top of their game, and so they will.
The TSQ has seldom played encores, but on this event it did: the second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet. With nothing to show off, the ensemble took a slower than usual tempo for this music, emphasizing Ravel’s imagination instead of its own technique.
Second violinist Kikuei Ikeda, a member of the ensemble since its fifth season, was visibly crying as the Quartet took its final bows. His emotion was seen in many audience members as well, and I’m not sure my own cheeks were entirely dry.