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Quartet of Quartets, Part II

New York
92nd Street Y
02/09/2002 -  
Johannes Brahms: Quartet # 1; Quintets Nos. 1 & 2
Fabio Vacchi: Quartet # 3

Phillip Ying (viola)
Tokyo String Quartet
Mikhail Kopelman and Kikuei Ikeda (violins)
Kazuhide Isomura (viola)
Clive Greensmith (cello)

“I tell you, you haven’t had such a beautiful thing from me before, haven’t published such a thing perhaps in the past ten years!!!”

Johannes Brahms to Fritz Simrock, 1882

As gorgeous as is his entire output, Brahms was correct in singling the string quintets out for higher praise: they radiate a sonorous luminescence unique in music history (and, arguably, the most shimmering piece of his apostle Antonin Dvorak is his own viola quintet). The G Major quintet of 1890 is most recognizable by its opening wherein the cellist, banished to the back of the semicircle, must somehow prevail in intoning the remarkably expansive theme while competing with the four other instruments who are all providing a forte “background” (Brahms penciled in a drop in dynamics for the Vienna premiere, but also scribbled in the margin “Only for the Rose Quartet…”). These two pieces with the extra viola were featured last evening in the second part of the Tokyo String Quartet’s survey of the chamber music of Brahms at the 92nd Street Y.

It was good to hear the Tokyo back on top of their game. The hesitancy and heterogeneity of the previous performance were instantly forgotten in a superbly crafted reading of the C Minor quartet. This is certainly the most beautiful of the three Brahmsian quartets and its sunny quality makes it a close relative of the quintets. What was most noticeably impressive here was the tightness of the group, each member’s antennae sensitively aware of the others’ anticipatory phrasings. The contemporary piece was also quite satisfying. Fabio Vacchi is a card-carrying member of the Second Venetian School, his new quartet reminiscent of the spatially complex universe of Bruno Maderna. The composition was most interesting for its wide range of string effects, from percussive bowing to delicate flutter-tonguing and seemed to hold together as music much better than most of its modern brethren. The second movement was a spirited and relentless prestissimo ala Shostakovich with an acrobatic transference of melodic moments from one stringed instrument to the other. One can only admire the dedication of these musicians to spend what must have been an inordinate amount of rehearsal time to get all of this right, knowing in advance that the audience would most likely only be interested in when the piece would be over.

The two quintets, although not without some minor flaws of blending (interestingly not with Mr. Ying, the interloper violist), were exquisitely played, Mr. Kopelman’s solo work in the Allegretto of the 2nd especially pleasing. Any one of these three Brahms performances would have been extraordinarily well appreciated, but the inclusion of them all on the same program begged the question of too much of the same sonorous delight in the same evening. One can only eat so much musk melon before its sweetness becomes stale. This was also an extremely long concert and perhaps attempting four full-length pieces in the same program was a bit over the top. With four concerts in which to shuffle all of these masterpieces, some more prudent selection might have left this particular recital a little less overwhelming. But all in all this was delicious music making and we only need to wait two weeks for Mr. Ying’s brother to join the group for those two magical sextets.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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