The Tokyo String Quartet in Mittel-Europa
by Tom Moore
November 15, 2009, Raleigh, NC: The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild brought the renowned Tokyo String Quartet to the Fletcher Opera Theater of the Progress Energy Center for a concert celebrating Ellen Black Winston, whose bequest has supported one concert for each of the last 25 seasons. Fletcher seems an ideal chamber music venue – not too large, comfortable, good sight lines and acoustics – the sort of space we would all like to have in our homes for our musical soirees. It was filled to capacity with a crowd which included students from the Mallarmé Youth Chamber Orchestra.
The Tokyo Quartet presented a program which might easily have been done seventy years ago, the date of the completion of the newest work on the program, the Sixth (and last) Quartet of Béla Bartók, finished in November 1939. The afternoon began with the Quartet in B-flat, D.112, of Franz Schubert, a relatively early work (1814), and one which seemed well-suited to the character of the quartet. At least on this afternoon, the Tokyo seemed to be a group fundamentally introverted in character, not dramatic, never strident, expressive, but within limits, with simply beautiful tone, clear and singing, even when the music becomes more aggressive. The overall character for the afternoon might have been marked "Allegro non troppo" (indeed, the marking for the first movement of the Schubert), and the dynamic, mezzo piano. The Tokyo omitted the repeat of the exposition for the first movement here, weakening a little the surprise of the development's sinking from the dominant F down to D-flat. The Minuet, with the character of a folkish Ländler, was perfectly gemütlich.
Although the Bartók quartets form part of the repertoire of every professional quartet (unlike, for example, the fifteen quartets of Shostakovich or the seventeen quartets of Villa-Lobos), I had the sense that somehow the Tokyo was less at home here than in the comfortable Germanic literature, and that rather than emphasizing the stylistic differences for this modern and Hungarian composer, the group tamed what might have been characteristic. It must be admitted that the conclusion of the work was beautifully rendered with pellucid intonation.
After intermission came the B-flat quartet Op. 67 of Brahms, a perfect fit for the group, even more so than the Schubert. Here nothing is extreme – no presto, not even an allegro, with the movements marked vivace, andante, and both the third and fourth movements allegretto, though the third is also agitato (how many friends do you know who are allegretto when agitated?). I find often that, whether for individuals or groups, the positive characteristic is often also a liability. For the Tokyo, a priority seems to be a seamless production of tone, so that the sound never ceases. This has a soothing quality, and carries the listener along, but it also means that where there should be a break in the discourse, a pause between sentences or paragraphs, as it were, there is none. It gives an orchestral feeling to a small ensemble, but can also be cloying. The characteristic rhythmic play of the composer was nicely presented, and the crowd rewarded the group with a standing ovation and several bows. A charming afternoon with the masters.