By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Despite recent personnel changes, the Tokyo String Quartet remains one of the world's peerless ensembles in chamber music.
On Tuesday, the Tokyo performed a stunning opener to its season in Corbett Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, performing a demanding program of Schubert, Janacek and Beethoven. It was a rare chance to hear the ensemble, which has achieved almost legendary status since it formed in 1969 at the Juilliard School, and has been visiting quartet-in-residence at CCM since 1987. The group will make just one other appearance here this year, March 30.
Unified sonority and warmth of spirit were the hallmarks of Schubert's Quartet No. 4 in C Major, which opened the program. Playing the extraordinary set of matched Stradivarius instruments, the "Paganini Quartet," didn't hurt. But the group, which includes founding member Kazuhide Isomura (viola) and Kikuei Ikeda (violin), has hit its stride with its new players, Canadian Martin Beaver, who took the first violin chair in 2002, and cellist Clive Greensmith, former principal cellist of London's Royal Philharmonic, who joined in 1999.
Although the newcomers provide a new richness to the Tokyo - particularly the big, refined tone of cellist Greensmith - each player soared out of the texture.
The fast outer movements were fleet and full of color, and the slow movement was approached with affection for its lyrical phrases. Violinist Beaver galvanized his colleagues, who dug into the dance rhythms of the Menuetto with a robust sound.
Janacek's Quartet No.2 is subtitled "Intimate Letters," referring to the composer's 600 correspondences with a married woman. Violist Isomura began the agitated exchange playing sul ponticello (on the bridge), a sound that added an ethereal color to the music. The players evoked a world of emotions through its four movements, with titles such as "Sweetest Longings," where intense outbursts alternated with tender love themes.
"Love Song" opened with a poignant folk tune and grew in intensity to a soaring climax. The musicians summoned wide-ranging expression and stunning technical effects. The last, "Fear for her Welfare," was an impassioned discourse, executed with equal helpings of emotion and flair.
Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, is one of the monuments of quartet literature. The Tokyo performed the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, the frenzied finale that is often substituted.
Altogether, it was an unforgettable feat of virtuosity and stamina. The first five movements were pictures of split-second precision and seat-of-your-pants playing.
The Cavatina was beautifully felt, and the players captured its spirituality with big vibratos and hymn-like simplicity. They attacked the fugue with relentless drive, in a tour-de-force that had the sizable crowd cheering.
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