It was standing room only for the Tokyo String Quartet Tuesday night in Werner Recital Hall at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
Presented by Chamber Music Cincinnati in collaboration with the Constella Festival, the concert marked the ensemble’s farewell appearance in Cincinnati. The Quartet, violinists Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Clive Greensmith, is embarked on their final tour after 43 seasons as one of the world’s finest chamber ensembles.
The concert had added resonance, as the celebrated Quartet spent ten years at CCM as visiting quartet-in-residence (1988-1998). There were many old friends in the crowd, as well as many students, eager to experience the historic event and to hear, live and in person, what greatness sounds like.
They were not disappointed. The Tokyo’s music-making was extraordinary, as fine as any this reviewer has heard them (or any other quartet) deliver. Each work on the program -- Haydn’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, Zoltán Kodály’s Quartet No. 2 and Ravel’s String Quartet -- was distinctive, marked by true, committed musicianship and matchless skill.
Think you have heard the Ravel Quartet? Think again. The Tokyo players’ performance was like a journey, with exquisite shaping, myriad detail and an almost orchestral sonority at times. The first movement (Allegro) unfolded gently, like ripples moving across the water. Tone colors were finely crafted, each tiny sparkle carefully highlighted. (The Quartet plays on a set of famed Stradivarius instruments once owned by 19th-century virtuoso Niccolò Paganini.) The second movement was a delight, with its compelling rhythms, dreamy melody and energetic pizzicato, which reverberated throughout the hall.
Violist Isomura (a founding member of the Quartet) opened the slow movement with a smooth, satiny sound. It was a spellbinding movement, one marked by questing and mystery, broken by the sudden outburst of finale, which brought the work to an exhilarating conclusion.
The Quartet took on a new persona in Kodály’s infrequently heard, 1918 Quartet. Folk-inspired (Kodály, like Bartok, was a collector of indigenous Hungarian music), it was a choice item on the program. The first movement went from dark to light, with an ethereal ending high on the E-string by first violinist Beaver. The second and third movements (played without a pause) were successively tragic and light-hearted, with delightful episodes in the giocoso (merry) finale, some of them downright child-like, including some jolly viola “fiddling.”
The concert opened with Haydn, where again, the Tokyo demonstrated its remarkable artistic insight. There was a wonderful lightness and precision throughout, an almost breezy air in the opening Allegro molto. The second movement, an affettuoso(affectionate) theme and variations, served as a kind of Tokyo “farewell” in itself, with each player performing his own heartfelt variation. Haydn the tease came out in thezingarese (gypsy-style) Minuet, with its perky off-rhythms and pizzicato, and in the brisk, brash finale.
Responding to a roomful of bravos and applause, the Quartet performed more Haydn, the final movement of his Quartet in G Minor, Op. 76, No. 3 (“The Rider”), making for an upbeat, delightfully kicky farewell to the beloved ensemble. Where will they go after the Tokyo’s retirement? Ikeda and Isomura will remain in Connecticut (the Quartet has been quartet-in-residence at Yale since 1976). Ikeda may take up jazz, he said. Beaver and Greensmith will move to the Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles.