The 2005-6 season of the Chamber Arts Society of Durham came to a close on the evening of April 29 with the presentation of one of its most constant and well-known ensembles. Even with many personnel changes, the Tokyo String Quartet has remained a brand name for excellence and elegance. Violist Kazuhide Isomura is the sole remaining founding member; the newest, first violinist Martin Beaver, joined the quartet in 2002. Rounding out the current lineup is violinist Kikuei Ikeda, a member since 1974, and cellist Clive Greensmith, who became a Tokyo member in 1999. With the wealth of accomplished players in the world today and the probability that many of them would have jumped at the chance to audition for such an august quartet, it is interesting to speculate on the audition process for openings. It is not that prevalent today, but there was a time when orchestras, quartets, and other ensembles had a particular sound and identity that was as distinctive as many soloists. Comparing older recordings of the Tokyo String Quartet with their current incarnation, it is apparent that the selection of the new members was made with an ear to both past and future.

The program chosen was a very traditional one, although there are some who still insist that the Bartók quartets are “modern” music despite the composer being dead for 60 years. The question of works that remained unfinished – I recently wrote about Mozart’s Mass in c minor – despite the fact that they were written in the middle of the composers’ lives is a topic ripe for picking. Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in C minor is referred to as “Quartettsatz”; it is barely one and one-half movements. There is no precedent for such a truncated treatment of the string quartet genre. Perhaps it served as a transition to his mature and profound instrumental compositions and Schubert used it as a hinge to his musically enlightened but tragically brief future. It is remarkable how much you can tell from a musician in just a few measures, and this was the case in the opening of this brief quartet. The work starts with rapidly repeated notes gradually including all members. The pristine articulation, pinpoint intonation, and dynamic shading immediately projected a quartet of impeccable power and grace – as if there were any doubt!

Considering the technical complexities and musical innovations of Béla Bartók’s first quartet, it is remarkable that it was a great success at its premiere in 1910 in Hungary. Bartók had discarded two earlier quartets; this is one of the early works that bears Bartók’s stamp as simultaneously written in the seemingly disparate styles of Hungarian folk influences alongside revolutionary western compositional methods. Bartók was a master of contrapuntal styles, but the slow opening of the first movement as well as the insanely fast Allegro Vivace would never be mistaken for a Baroque trio sonata!

Notwithstanding the two-movement Schubert quartet in the first half, the string quartet genre up to and including Beethoven’s generation was primarily a four-movement affair. Along with shattering many other musical conventions in his late string quartets, Beethoven felt no allegiance to the arbitrary four-movement restraint. His Op. 130 quartet had a history of financial and publishing battles, but when it finally emerged in its final form it became one of his most wide-ranging emotional creations. There remains to this day a myth of the “incomprehensible” nature of the late quartets and their difficulty. Although it is hard to place yourself in 1826 Vienna, this quartet is at once accessible, mystical, and a combination of what today we would call “blue collar,” as opposed to, shall we say, more artistically engaged. The Tokyo quartet was masterful in a sort of programmatic tone painting as they traveled through the many mood swings of this masterpiece. Beethoven composed a work that went from the achingly profound to the almost silly, from slow lush harmonies to a Presto that seems to tease you – it is over so quickly that you question whether it even happened. But the most memorable innovation is the unusual inclusion of a Cavatina as the penultimate movement. Combining unspeakable melodic and harmonic beauty with a spicy rhythmic asymmetry, it was rumored to bring even Beethoven himself to tears.

The Tokyo Quartet was playing a set of Stradivarius instruments known as “The Paganini Quartet,” on loan to them since 1995 by the Nippon Music Foundation. But even a set of $10 million instruments is just pieces of wood unless consummate artists are playing and blending them. Every member of the Tokyo Quartet displays one of the traits that separate great artists from run-of-the-mill good ones, including effortless virtuosity where technique serves the music but is not on display for its own sake.