Tokyo String Quartet pays final, eloquent visit to Cleveland

Saying farewell is never easy, but it’s possible to experience some semblance of closure when the last encounter is so rewarding.

The large audience at the Cleveland Chamber Music Society’s concert Tuesday at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights knew the feeling. The evening marked the last local performance by the Tokyo String Quartet, which will disband in June after 44 years.

The ensemble has appeared often under the auspices of the society, as second violinist Kikuei Ikeda acknowledged while expressing the Tokyo’s gratitude to Cleveland at night’s end. The crowd returned the thanks, giving the musicians the kind of reception reserved for artistic heroes.

For its final visit to Cleveland, the Tokyo chose a program that virtually summed up the genre of the string quartet. The ensemble began and ended in the 18th century with Haydn — “He started it all,” noted Ikeda — and touched upon the 19th and 20th centuries with works by Mendelssohn and Bartok.

The hallmarks of the Tokyo style were on welcome display throughout the night. The playing was sophisticated in phrasing and interaction, scrupulous in detail and keenly alert to atmosphere.

Haydn’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3, began the night in an articulate performance that basked in the supreme transitions from minor to major (and often back again) and the composer’s ability to balance melting lyricism with intense drama.

Martin Beaver managed the first-violin part with elegant panache as he traded lines with colleagues Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura (the Tokyo’s only remaining founding member) and cellist Clive Greensmith. The account had vigor and tenderness, as well as vibrant rhythmic propulsion in the galloping finale, which gives the work its subtitle, “The Rider.”

An entirely different sort of ride unfolds in Bartok’s Quartet No. 4, whose five movements alternate slashing folk rhythms with piles of dissonance, mesmerizing night music and moody effects.

The Tokyo unleashed the material with utmost control and urgency, avoiding the maniacal attack some quartets apply but brilliantly defining the score’s juxtaposition of explosive and chilling expressivity.

Before bidding Cleveland adieu, the ensemble inhabited the emotional worlds of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2. The music’s markings of “appassionato” and “agitato” were observed with the distinctive refinement, clarity and interpretive wisdom that long have been prime Tokyo characteristics.

The musicians weren’t finished after Mendelssohn had his say. For an encore, they took delight in the boisterous finale from Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 20, No. 4, which ends with an ensemble whisper. The audience’s affection for the Tokyo, on the other hand, was loud and clear.

Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer
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