Tokyo String Quartet

String Quartet in G, D887

Tokyo String Quartet [Martin Beaver & Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola) & Clive Greensmith (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 27 November, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Tokyo String Quartet contains just one original member, violist Kazuhide Isomura, but the current line-up seem to have bedded down with well-received recordings of Beethoven and Mozart. They play on the ‘Paganini Quartet’, a group of Stradivarius instruments played by that virtuoso in the 19th-century.

Paganini could be held directly responsible for the empty seats when the first movement of Schubert’s final, largest quartet received its first performance, as he was in Vienna at the time. The contrast between the two composers could hardly be greater, with Schubert’s harmonic advances and troubled disposition laid bare throughout this long yet clearly structured piece.

Schubert completed the quartet quickly, in as little as ten days, and the themes of restlessness and tonal ambiguity run from first chord to last. The Tokyo Quartet, in this lunchtime performance, gave a nervous edge to this through the hushed, quasi-orchestral tremolos that provided an atmospheric backdrop to Martin Beaver’s understated theme. The range of dynamics, so important in this work, was well secured from the four, with pianissimos particularly well observed.

The Tokyo experienced tension of ensemble in the finale, not always of their intent, for though the musicians kept together there was a nagging feeling they were on the edge, with several snatched chords. In a curious way this served as an ideal interpretation of the piece, which continued with ferocious developmental episodes never resolved, then what might have been an affirming chorale usurped by urgent triplet figures.

The middle two movements were most successful. Greensmith’s cello held back noticeably in the expressive Andante solo, its vibrato adding to the underlying nervous tension. An extremely light texture here contrasted with the jagged, heavy chords that followed, and when Greensmith and Beaver moved sweetly into the tonic major there was a brief ray of sunlight in a piece dominated by minor key implications. The light shone briefly again at the close.

The scherzo, a clear predecessor of Dvořák, was light and fleet-footed, with its companion trio much slower and oversentimental. However the musicians made light of the tricky closing bars when the Scherzo returned, and kept tension to the fore.

There was no companion piece, and the concert finished early. It seemed right, though, to give this elusive work its own platform, and the Tokyo Quartet did a fine job in capturing its essence.

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