Tokyo String Quartet a too-rare treat

October 18, 1994|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

The Shriver Hall Concert Series opened Saturday night with the Tokyo String Quartet, and the near-capacity audience was given three flawless performances by an ensemble that is without doubt cementing its place in the pantheon of the great quartets.

The unity of the ensemble conjures comparisons to such groups the Quartetto Italiano, Juilliard String Quartet and the Budapest String Quartet. This is the quartet's 25th season, and like a fine wine it has aged to perfection. The two-hours-plus program was spellbinding.

The program opened with Mozart's Quartet in E-flat Major. This is the third of the six quartets known as the "Haydn Quartets." Mozart displayed extraordinary power to use a wide range of modulations in his expositional material in these quartets, and this quartet provides a prime example of his harmonic genius. Especially wonderful was the sublime slow movement. The Menuetto was folksy in the manner of great Haydn. The finale was similar to the perpetual motion of the final movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 39, and the Tokyo Quartet responded to the infectious quality of the music.

The work that followed is a killer for most string quartets. The String Quartet No. 1 of Leos Janacek demands a giant arsenal of difficult tonal effects and bone-crushing ostinati. The quartet was given the name "Kreutzer Sonata," drawing inspiration from Tolstoy's short novella about jealousy, adultery and murder. This performance was a masterwork. The Tokyo Quartet should record this work.

The final jewel was a tear-jerking performance of the Beethoven String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. This was an epic reading. The rich harmonic language of the opening movement was passionate and tender.

But the heavenly peak was the third movement, titled "Heliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit in der lidischen Tonart (Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a convalescent in the Lydian mode)." The Tokyo gave timeless beauty to this music that will always be contemporary to its audiences. Beethoven considered using the final movement of this quartet for the Ninth Symphony. The Tokyo gave ample evidence that Beethoven made the right choice using this material in a quartet rather than orchestra.

When a string quartet realizes the intentions of the composer so masterfully, listeners are not just hearing the Tokyo String Quartet. They are getting a direct message from the creative mind of the composer.

Great music making should make one marvel at the supreme talents that go into the creation of masterpieces. The Tokyo Quartet plays with such complete command of its artistic intentions that it becomes one with the great art it is presenting.

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