Brilliantly together : Tokyo String Quartet at King's College Chapel, Cambridge

They were always bound to be a class act, this world-renowned group of instrumentalists with forty-four years to their collective name, but they took nothing for granted, not even the famous King’s acoustic. (I heard their leader, Martin Beaver, make an allusion to a just as famous one of the Carols from King’s in this connection.)

Sadly, a travelling mishap with the quartet’s viola-player, Kasuhide Isomura, meant that they were only rehearsing there for thirty minutes before they had to stop for an audience of what must have been around at least 300 to be let in. (I say ‘had to stop’, but, personally, I might have pleaded artistic reasons and begged the indulgence of the audience to delay the concert for half-an-hour to 7.30 – what did significantly hang, other than getting familiar with the delay of around six seconds, on beginning when advertised, and that would have been all to the good for everyone ?)

Where I felt that the brief interval showed its worth was in allowing the players to reflect on the sound of the first half and re-enter the space for the final work : I cannot believe that they did not exchange words of comment and advice on how to perform in it, because Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15* fitted it like a glove.

Starting there, although out of order in the programme, the quality of the Austrian composer’s writing for cello was evident – sometimes, it is a few percussive beats, often enough to be addictive it is in that singing, upper register where the instrument comes into its beautiful best. The work is on a grand scale (with perhaps necessarily the slight exception of the third-movement Scherzo) as all of these later chamber works are – and Schubert shortly dead at just 31.

Broken or repeated phrases or motifs, sonata form bringing back and again back the melodic elements, these are the concerns of these towering works from the end of Schubert’s life, and, but reverentially and with great beauty and delicacy, the Tokyo players offered it to us. It was gladly received – hardly a cough, almost never during a movement, because the audience was hushed. At the end, most joined in the impulse to give a standing ovation, no doubt because this playing had transported them as it did me, just as does glancing up at the angels signifying, maybe, the finite and the infinite, alpha and omega in their instruments, or in the reflective tranquility of King’s stained glass.

In the first half, we had started with Mozart’s so-called Hoffmeister String Quartet No. 20 in D major, K. 499, and, as an initial impression, one was aware of how sunny this semi-adopted Viennese composer (though did Vienna ever take him to its bosom ?) might seem. Now, I do not place much weight on the idea of a major key equalling happiness, a minor one sorrow or depression, but it was quite clear that the beautifully brought-out lower line of the cello was again of great importance.

Its contribution acted, particularly in the first and third movements, as a sort of counterbalance to the seeming good humour – the interaction of one with the other meant that the entire feel (God forbid, I nearly said ‘message’ !) of the music was somewhere in between, almost as if the composition invited one at one’s peril to hear it as one immediately might. Clive Greensmith’s playing was authoritative, and it was difficult not to be magnetically drawn by the ease and dexterity of his fingerwork, watching which enhanced one’s pleasure at his mastery and expressive qualities.

At the same time – and this may have been adjusting to the acoustic (or its effect on an instrument at that pitch), one was sure that the viola was part of the texture, but it was very hard to hear Isomura in the first half : differentiating parts is, as I have indicated, made easier my being able to see the instrumentalist’s position on the neck of the instrument, but even the lack left the viola part immersed in the rest of the writing.

This was a thoughtful choice, though, of quartet, and my impression is that it may be overlooked between the so-called Prussian Quartets and the preceding set of six that was dedicated to Haydn – no reason for that, really, when one typically has no more than one Mozart quartet, often as an opener, almost as if – perhaps not valuing the works – as a palate-cleanser. As the Tokyo Quartet reminded us, Mozart’s string-writing has real depth, and these works, especially in front of an elaborate rood-screen that dates back to around two hundred and fifty years earlier, are more than we might imagine.

Time, perhaps, for further serious evaluations (I know that King’s Place has done something) of Mozart’s creation for this configuration, when going through Beethoven’s quartet œuvre is maybe too much taken for granted ?

As for the Webern, maybe I have heard this quartet from 1905 before, maybe I haven’t, but my recollection was that, in Deutsche Grammophon’s complete Second Viennese School String Quartets, Webern’s entire output fitted easily onto two sides of an LP (yes, I know…).

I couldn’t wonder whether the work that we were hearing was an elaborate hoax, as it dated to 40 years before the composer’s death (but, then, so did much else), and often sounded like nothing so much as early, lyrical Berg, but with characteristic Webern touches here and there. Perhaps this piece from a Webern of around 22 years has come to light (it pre-dates his first work with an Opus number by three years) since I was last seriously in his sound-world, but its luscious writing, with spiky interjections of partial tone-rows, suited this tribute to Vienna and those associated with it.

The Quartet interpreted it to us unfussily, treating the dissonant passages or nascent tone-rows just as they might an expressive passage in the Mozart or Schubert, and it was a good foil to the Mozart, with no depths hidden – except from one’s ear or interpretation – in its musical purpose.

As I have already said, the Tokyo Quartet received warm thanks for their musicianship, and for this choice of works with the Viennese impulse of dance at its heart – a real joy to see them on this final tour of the UK !

The Agent Apsley, Unofficial Cambridge Film Festival
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