Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Tokyo String Quartet

Great art may be forever, but great artists are not themselves always so lucky.

That melancholy thought struck me as I heard the legendary Tokyo String Quartet perform last weekend under the auspices of People’s Symphony Concerts.  I have attended People’s Symphony on-and-off now for more than 20 years and this concert will always rank with me among the most memorable.

The Tokyo String Quartet formed in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music, and the founding members all attended the Toho Gakuen School of Music, studying with Hideo Saito.  Success came rapidly to the quartet, winning first prizes at the Coleman Competition, the Munich Competition and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions.

When not on tour, the quartet serves on the faculty of the Yale School of Music (where they’ve been since 1976) and you can hear them on more than 30 albums under RCA Victor Red Seal and Deutsche Grammaphon.  Or, you may remember them from appearances on Great Performances … or even Sesame Street.

The quartet currently consists of Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda on violin, Kazuhide Isomura on viola and Clive Greensmith on cello.  These wonderful musicians perform on the Paganini Quartet, a group of renowned Stradivarius instruments named for the legendary virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, who played these very instruments during the 19th Century.

The Tokyo Quartet was joined Saturday by Alon Goldstein on the piano, and it was a serendipitous grouping.  The quartet played Haydn’s Quarter in E-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6 with a beautifully lyric touch.  They followed with Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, transforming what is often a cold, intellectual piece into a moving experience.  After the interval, Goldstein joined them for Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34.  Readers familiar with this piece know the emotionally affecting tenor of this piece, and many people in the audience were reduced to tears.  Perhaps the theatrical showmanship of Goldstein helped keep the quartet (and the audience) in check, as he played with dramatic flair and grandiloquent verve.  Thinking it would be impossible to top all this, the five returned for an encore of Dvořák that served as a perfect palette cleanser.

The concert was ultimately melancholy as your correspondent realized that The Tokyo String Quartet would soon be no more.  Both Isomura and Ikeda plan to retire, and, rather than reassemble with other players, the group has decided that the 2013 season will be its last.  They will be on tour for the next year and a half, and you are urged to see this extraordinary group if at all possible.  They have also released a new album of Franz Schubert’s String Quintet on the harmonia mundi label.  This is the last, and perhaps the most haunting, of Schubert’s chamber works, and Tokyo captures both the light and the dark of the piece. 

You can learn more about the final tour of The Tokyo String Quartet on their Web site:  http://www.tokyoquartet.com/index.php

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