Music Toronto presents The Tokyo String Quartet reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, April 30, 2009, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

What’s new and exciting? The Tokyo String Quartet playing Beethoven’s early Quartets! These pieces have the energy of a twenty-something Beethoven who was making a name for himself in Vienna as an exciting pianist. They radiate the confidence of a composer who has already published piano and string trios, sonatas for cello and piano (including the “Pathetique”), and who was ready to take a bite at the big apple of string quartets dominated by Haydn and the ghost of Mozart. The Quartets of Op. 18 sing of this radiant energy, and in them there also sounds the retreat, the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” of Beethoven’s ability to hear the world around him. These are the elements of musical drama that the Tokyo String Quartet makes vivid with the highest standard of fidelity.

Tonight they performed the final three quartet of this Opus. Martin Beaver’s first violin opens the “Allegro” of No. 4 in C Minor with mournful, rising upper register intervals that burn with longing, perhaps for deliverance from the curse of deafness intimated by the unremitting dark strokes of Clive Greensmith’s cello. The richness of this music takes over the mind and one can barely restrain the urge to applaud after the first movement. The second movement, “Andante scherzoso” is a kind of blue tune that works itself out in counterpoint as a canon and has the feeling of laughing just to keep from crying. There is a kind of tense pussy-footing repressed energy interwoven with a ticking-of-time measure that is quite thrilling. The “Menuetto” is colourful and controlled. The “Finale,” a rondo with a gypsy bounce that nods to Haydn, is based on fast and furiously paced fiddling that lifts the spirits and the imagination to a festive scene.

The Quartet in A. Op. 18, No.5 is said to be modeled on Mozart’s quartet in the same key, K. 464. Mindful of Mozart’s supremacy in blending character and music, you can hear in Beethoven’s work the cadences of a highly ornamented melody telling a story for musical theatre satirizing the encounter of worldly doom that stalks a naïve youth. The darkish emotionality of the poignant second movement sings and dances, while the more restrained third movement, a “Theme and variations” marked ‘Andante cantabile’, sings with a kind of homesick heart that looks ahead to Schubert. The “Finale” opens with a carefree melody but dies away singing a farewell motif.

The opening theme of the 6th quartet in the series has the gaiety of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, as the first violin flies over the plodding cello. The second theme is slow and serious, preparing the way for the famous “La Malinconia” movement in the third. The “Adagio” begins slowly in a mood of relaxation induced by the interplay of violins, but the second theme, announced by the groaning cello introduces previously unheard weird harmonies  that darken further as the key goes into minor. From here, the music jerks into a vigorous, rhyming scherzo, celebrating normalcy, as it were, and out of that, without warning, enters the music of sorrow made manifest: “La Malinconia.” Time hanging heavily on it like chains of captive who can barely drag himself along to his doom. The music sounds the rusty hinges of a huge door slowly shutting out life, enclosing weakness and despair.

The drama that follows is signature Beethoven. Light blasts in, darkness dims it; gaiety and dance re-surge, only to collapse into brooding depression. After several of these alternations each mood begins to take on the qualities of the other until a rich harmony becomes clarified. The movement ends in the wild riot of a prestissimo, a flight so rapid it brings in its wake the question, ‘a flight from what?’.

This was a performance that excites the imagination and whets the appetite for next year’s series in Toronto when the Tokyo String Quartet will illuminate the string quartets of Beethoven’s middle period.

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