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From Bohemia's Woods and Fields

New York
92nd Street Y
03/27/2004 -  
Bedrich Smetana: Quartet # 1, "From My Life"
Franz Schubert: Songs, Quartet D810, "Death and the Maiden"

Bejun Mehta (countertenor)
Israel Gursky (piano)
Tokyo String Quartet
Martin Beaver and
Kikuei Ikeda (violins)
Kazuhide Isomura (viola)
Clive Greensmith (cello)

Although it really is not necessary to have a programmatic subtext at every concert, the trend here in New York is for each evening to “mean” something, not just present serious works of art in fine performance. The Tokyo String Quartet has mounted a series this season at the 92nd Street Y purporting to show the connection between the music of Bohemia and that of Franz Schubert. Entitled “Schubert’s Bohemian Roots”, it promised, at least by implication, to essay an ethnomusicological splice within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Bohemia as a region is often misunderstood and mistakenly equated in modern consciousness with Czechoslovakia, but it is important to remember that it was actually a diverse land within an even more diverse polyglot of cultures. In music, this leads to confusion: for example, Mahler was from Bohemia, Janacek was not.

In any case, the quartet’s playing of Smetana before plunging into Schubert was mystifying; if it was intended to support some thesis, then that idea was lost on this listener (we will take on faith that they know that Schubert lived long before this particular Bohemian). Perhaps the illumination would have been considerably clearer if the ensemble had really put heart and soul into their playing. What we got instead was a lukewarm version of an otherwise highly passionate piece: in this reading the composer’s life as source material had little excitement to warrant such an extensive narrative survey.

Do you remember Zamfir? This Romanian instrumentalist attempted to sell millions of records in America back in the day by bastardizing everything from pop to the classics and playing the distilled melodies on the syrinx. In fact, one of his big numbers was indeed Schubert, an Ave Maria dwelling somewhere on the border between kitsch and heresy. Whether he played the Beatles or Chopin, the pan pipes made it always sound just a bit wrong. Something similar is the net result of listening to Bejun Mehta. Mr. Mehta exhibits the fine attributes of a dedicated musician and can even be classified as an excellent interpreter of lieder, possessing that rare diction required for songs that is so different from that of the opera artist (and the intelligence to know the difference). However, his countertenor voce di testa is so far from the lyrical as to seem almost a parody. Certainly there are roles for this particular voice, but the sweet and sacred lines of Schubert should be left to those with a warmer tessitura.

This reviewer goes back a very long way with the Tokyo, in fact all the way back to summer music school at Yale. I suppose that I should say that I have been listening to violist Kazuhide Isomura perform with various partners for almost 30 years now. Their recent troubles of stylistic violinist transplant rejection behind them, the group is poised for a renaissance of splendid communication, but they are decidedly not there as of yet. New leader Martin Beaver may fit in in terms of dynamics and vibrato, aesthetics and philosophy, but his strained tone was most upsetting in the ”Death and the Maiden”. The andante con moto was terribly unfocused, the entire quartet drifting aimlessly in and out of pockets of pedestrianism and lethargy. The faster movements were more together (and in tune), but Beaver’s scraping and sawing were major distractions. All in all, this was a very disappointing evening, but, then again, maybe I’m just taking the Bohemian view.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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