TOKYO STRING QUARTET’S Beethoven Op. 18.1-3 @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, January 22, 2009. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

There were no musicians, no instruments, only the music playing itself, or so it seemed, as Beethoven’s first three string quartets manifested in the space of the packed house at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Beethoven’s earliest quartets owe much to Haydn’s classicism and show great purity of line. At this stage of his development, Beethoven’s originality in the expression of emotion and in technical innovation also comes, following Haydn, as elements of surprise, rather than in full dress, as they do in the later works.

The current Tokyo players, two founding members (1969) on viola and second violin, cello (1996) and first violin (2002) cleave to Beethoven’s dynamics, grading the sudden changes a bit more smoothly than they did in the 1992 Tokyo recording with Peter Oundjian as leader. Their playing tonight was refined, elegant, and effortless, often sounding like it was played by one person. Meticulously gauged pauses brought out the drama of the works: bursts of colour and inflection bloomed like full blooded but fleeting smiles on the face of a geisha.

From the opening bars of the G Major allegro, first violin Martin Beaver laid a trail of sweet lyrical phrases, while Clive Greensmith’s cello sounded melancholy notes sincerely but never coloured outside the bounding lines of graceful manners. Founder Kazuhide Isomura’s viola filled in the conclusion with a hint of darkness that alluded to Mozart and indicated the gravity of the adagio cantabile that followed. Then came a surprising shift in mood and tempo of the allegro that darkens again during the closing dialogue between violin and cello. The scherzo gallops for a bit, goes solemn in the trio and returns again as founder Kikue Ikeda’s violin joins with the leader to close this third movement and initiate the ‘unbuttoned’ gaiety of the finale.

The Quartet in D, No. 3 is generally contemplative in mood, not to say sad. It is also dramatic. Beethoven frequently interrupts the calm, warm, tender, singing strings with slashing staccato chords, as if asserting a freedom from the constraints of the form he is observing. The slow movement—andante con moto—is tenderly eloquent, and is animated as if from underneath, by surges of feeling, a sense of melodramatic turmoil alternating with a gentle, healing pulse that brings the movement “with sighs and syncopations” to fade away on a barely audible pianissimo. Even the bright scherzos embedded with a swirling trio are veiled in a minor key sadness that is so touching. The swift, jokey, final presto drives and turns like a tarantella rendered in chiaroscuro by Rembrandt—vivacity flashing out of darkness.

The Quartet in F stands as No. 1 at the head of the opus because Beethoven judged it the most impressive of his first three compositions not because it was written first. Beethoven made nine tries (recorded in sixteen pages of his notebooks) to perfect the opening motif. It has since been described by Joseph Kerman as the “coiled spring”, that dominates about one third of the movement. Staccato “Da da-ta-da-ta Dum, Da da-ta-da-ta Dum,” followed by lyrical sighing sets up the emotional tension and dramatic sweep of this movement.

The adagio is drama itself. Beethoven conceived this movement as an emotional program for the scene in the burial vault of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The tempo is funereal in perfect taste, the melody discreetly mournful, the accompaniment a stately steady pulse expressing both grief and consolation.

The scene progresses first in a flare of emotion floating up on tender voices that become transparent and fade into nothingness. The scherzo leaps upward in perky lines that carry with them some weighty mystery. The concluding rondo pounces on the ear with tremendous verve and never rests from the opening Mozartean swirl of violins, through the biting offbeats of the recapitulation and the bright wit of the coda.

The encore, one was demanded, the burletta from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6 was like a Zen-master’s one stroke sumi brush circle that says “Mu”— beyond any category at all.

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