Tokyo String Quartet Beethoven Series (#4 of 6) at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, April 8, 2010, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The Tokyo String Quartet breathed life into Beethoven’s last three ‘Middle Quartets’ and made love to them. In the opening measures of Op.95 (the ‘Serioso’) they give us all the power and beauty of Beethoven’s mind condensed. They explode a sharply contoured opening phrase in unison : the individual voices heavily accented by agitation, rebound against each other, followed by —silence—a suspenseful, enigmatic pause. Clive Greensmith’s cello repeats the unison figure solo against a finely textured held chord by the ensemble, Martin Beaver’s first violin utters the first tender, plaintive phrase of the conversation which gets a rising arpeggio out of the cello, then Kazuhide Isomura’s viola¬† leads the ensemble to a forte repetition of the opening unison statement, followed by another abrupt halt.

In these few measures, the audience gets the gist of how Beethoven’s feelings—passion and sorrow, exaltation and despair—follow each other in quick, unpredictable, succession, and how he expresses the force and sensitivity of his inner drama without compromise. We also get here an encapsulated glimpse of what this Tokyo String Quartet can do working together, as if one great sculptor, to bring out the smooth planes, the sharp lines, the delicate curves, the detailed textures, and the polished tones of a Venus or a David. The result is hearing each piece of music—Op. 59.3, Op. 74 “The Harp”, and the aforementioned ‘Serioso’—animated by musicians in such perfect accord with the composer that we can ask, with the poet Yeats,” How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Beethoven’s music of this period, around 1810, is black and blue: his “Immortal Beloved” had left him without explanation; the last vestiges of his hearing were literally being assaulted by the thunder of Napolean’s army during the conquest of Vienna; his hopes for some kind of normal family life were forever ruined. In the long night of despair Beethoven the man’s only protector was Beethoven the artist—“the splendour and joy of his genius, and the craving to excercise his creative power and to spend it recklessly,” as his friend Bettina Brentano wrote. You can literally hear the triumph of creative power as it resolves despair into a feeling of unity with all of life in the final movement of the ‘Serioso’. It is very pleasurable to hear amidst the original tones of Beethoven’s emergent maturity, charming echoes of Mozart in the ‘trio’ portion of Op. 59.3. This ensemble’s rendering of the pizzicato portions of Op. 74’s “Allegro” (that give it the nickname “Harp”), is stunning in it’s virtuosity, particularly the crystalline tones of Kikuei Ikeda’s second violin, which also sometimes tickles the tearful flow of the “Adagio”.

Beethoven’s three-in-the-morning blacks, blues, and moods indigo, the splendorous rose tones of the dawn, and every colour of the rainbow pour out of the famous four Stradivarius instruments in the hands of this impeccable ensemble. When they come back to Music Toronto in 2011, The Tokyo String Quartet will give two concerts of Beethoven’s later period quartets that will complete their recording project with Harmonia Mundi.

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