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Quartet of Quartets, Part III

New York
92nd Street Y
02/23/2002 -  
Johannes Brahms: String Sextets Nos. 1 & 2
Joan Tower: Quartet # 2 World Premiere

Phillip Ying (viola)
David Ying (cello)

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

“Here I have freed myself from my last love.”

Brahms to Johann Gaensbacher

The String Sextet # 2, in addition to being one of the loveliest of all of the Brahms chamber pieces, served as a therapeutic outlet for the composer during the aftermath of his breakup with soprano Agathe von Siebold in much the same manner as her own Erinnerungen (diaries in fictionalized form) did for her. Brahms goes so far as to include the name of his beloved three times in the first movement by sequencing the notes a g a d h e (the h being the German equivalent of b natural), as Schumann did before him in the ”Abegg” Variations or Berg would later do in the Lyric Suite. Even though (or perhaps because) this type of impassioned incident was unusually commonplace in Brahms’ life (two of his paramours were Clara Schumann and her daughter Julie), the intensity of emotion is not at all diluted in its repetition. This exquisitely blended example of string writing and its earlier buoyant mate were featured in the penultimate concert exploring the world of Brahms’ chamber music by the Tokyo String Quartet last evening at the 92nd Street Y.

The two sextets were brilliantly played by the Tokyo and half of the Ying Quartets. Kazuhide Isomura, the last founder of the Japanese ensemble which continually dazzled those of us fortunate enough to hear them every summer at the Norfolk festival in Connecticut twenty to twenty-five years ago, was especially inspired in the first, lovingly expounding on the youthful exuberance of Brahms in the most mellow of tones. One of the great pleasures in the Tokyo is to hear Mr. Isomura richly intone on his viola and then experience Mikhail Kopelman reprise (although never repeat) the melody in a more luminescent manner, burnt sienna morphing into day-glo orange. The addition of the Ying brothers has been a masterstroke for these concerts: their musicianship is on the same high level and their infusion of vigor most welcome. Tonight the blending was the best of the three concerts thus far. This is not to say that there are not some miscues, but they seem to be errors of enthusiasm brought on by the intensity of the emotions manifest in these readings. Sometimes precision is not the ultimate goal. These versions, dripping with sweetness and trembling with ardor, remind of the Casals performances of the early 1950’s, the poetry stronger than the technique. What was spot on was the overall sound, a gloriously Viennese schlagobers with only the slightest hint of irony (it is interesting to note how much of this North German’s music is in three quarter time or some variation of same). For sheer beauty of sound, this evening was hard to top.

Continuing their important work as active participants in the contemporary world, the Tokyo sans amis presented the world premiere of the Joan Tower Quartet # 2. Set up as a memorial, this high energy work reminded me of the Poulenc Elegie for Dennis Brain, although its Kubler-Ross journey never progresses past the anger stage. It was certainly invested with a great deal of passionate play in this performance, but I would have wished for a little more of the skillful sound and a lot less of the fury. Ms. Tower was in attendance.

With only one segment to go, this series has proven to be a solid traversal and has sold out every performance. I have heard good things about pianist Max Levinson who will join these extremely talented men for the mighty quintet in May. Stay tuned.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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