Tokyo String Quartet celebrates its 40th anniversary at Ravinia

Fri Aug 14, 2009 at 3:15 pm

By Dennis Polkow

The Tokyo String Quartet performed Thursday night at Ravinia.

When the Tokyo String Quartet burst on the scene in 1969, the goal was to establish the first permanent quartet in Japan.  But the Tokyo approach to music making—emphasizing overall group unity versus a collection of virtuosos players trying to outdo one another—was something that the West immediately took to. The group wowed various international competitions early on and was propelled to a rare level of celebrity in the classical world.

Forty years later, only violist Kazuhide Isomura is left from that original ensemble, yet as the quartet’s appearance Thursday night at Ravinia demonstrated, the principles that have guided the group from its inception are still very much in evidence.  There are far flashier string quartets out there than the Tokyo Quartet, but none more musical nor that can produce a better blend and balance. 

Haydn has always been signature music for the Tokyo Quartet: its recording of the Opus 76 string quartets established brisk tempi and transparent lines for this music back when the performance practice movement had barely begun.  The Tokyo performance of the Quartet in D Major (Op. 76, No. 5) was revelatory.  Tempos were brisk and daring, the approach light yet full-bodied.  The Largo emphasized beautiful sound and blend, with first violinist Martin Beaver’s solo organically emerging out of the sonority.  

Janáĉek’s Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters, was written as a gift to a married woman 37 years his junior who became a romantic obsession of the composer late in his life. The piece gave founding member Isomura a chance to shine as the viola takes the role of the beloved in this very personal work.  Isomura achieved a dark, brooding sound on the lower range of his instrument that at times was almost cello-like.  The entire group alternated between a lush, Romantic approach and a haunting, ethereal quality where each member was playing on the edge of their instruments, expressing the gorgeous yet sometimes schizophrenic and guilt-ridden nature of Janáĉek’s declarations.         

The opening Haydn formed a particularly satisfying juxtaposition with the Beethoven Quartet No. 7 (Op. 59, No. 1 in F Major), the first of the middle period “Razumovsky” Quartets, which were commissioned by the eccentric Russian count who was the czar’s diplomat in Vienna.  

Though often performed as an anticipation of later Beethoven, the Tokyo approach was to treat them as more radical Haydn and Mozart (indeed, the second movement quotes from one of the Queen of the Night’s arias from Mozart’s The Magic Flute).  By emphasizing the true Classical style of the piece, where Beethoven is starting to expand those forms, the music emerges more radically by being highlighted in sharp relief, especially in the false cadences and sudden departures into new territory.

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