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Ring in the New

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
10/14/1999 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet #3
Maurice Ravel: String Quartet
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet #9

Tokyo String Quartet

Generally considered the greatest chamber music group since the advent of the recording, the Budapest String Quartet devolved from an ensemble consisting of four Hungarians into a quartet of all Russian Jews. The sound of the quartet changed dramatically during the process and the resulting chamber superstars were actually criticized during the 1940’s for being too perfect. A similar metamorphosis has been going on for some years within the Tokyo String Quartet as the influence of the legendary Hideo Saito fades with time and personnel changes. Recently additions have included Mikhail Kopelman, for many years the first violinist of the Borodin Quartet, and now this year Clive Greensmith, the recent first chair cellist of the Royal Philharmonic. Actually only one member remains from the original quartet formed in the 1960’s and I have in my mind’s ear a very different sound memory from the quartet’s early residency at the Yale Summer Music Series at Norfolk, Connecticut. A further major change is that the players have now abandoned their Amatis for a special set of Strads known as the "Paganini Quartet" and will begin soon to record with these delicate instruments.

The Beethoven performance was remarkable for its anthropomorphic aping of an actual conversation. More than once the audience reacted viscerally to the subtle humor of holding a mirror up to ourselves as this essay on communication, still very much under the influence of Haydn, was allowed to flourish before us. The overall sound was certainly beautiful but there were a couple of grating combinations of the two violins which kept the performance from the exceptional category.

More deeply satisfying was that gorgeous Ravel. I was struck by the Messiaenic concept of the beauty of the moment being much more important than the development in this sublimely liquid tone painting. Like the music of another Frenchman, Pierre Boulez, there were frozen instants that stand out in the aural recollection so movingly intense as to defy description. Again, however, there were a number of intonation problems more endemic of a much longer work and ultimately this is just laziness on the part of the group. Their attention span seemed to be somewhat limited (violist Kazuhide Isomura actually let his fingers hit two other different strings during a simple exit at one point) and perhaps they are still learning to play as a unit. The tres lent movement was truly beautiful (thanks to Mr. Isomura and his incredible solos) but still fell a little apart at the very end. So close and yet…

A strange choice to my thinking was the Shostakovich. Much less intense than its immediate predecessor, the 9th quartet seems to be almost a watered down imitative work, written during a period of tiredness and artistic paralysis. There is a ghostly reference to the William Tell Overture which always gets a reaction from the crowd, but I would have thought that the 8th would have showcased this group’s potential for intensity much more strongly. Shostakovich wrote most of the quartets in one gigantic burst and the quality varies considerably (the Emerson are doing them all later this season).

Overall a satisfying but sparsely attended affair, the concert was videotaped for performance on PBS and the ticket sellers grouped us all together to convey the appearance of a much larger crowd. I only hope that the slovenliness of these obviously extremely talented musicians is only a temporary effect of growing pains and not a sign of things to come. Certainly there is no danger of accusing these men of being too perfect. Perhaps they need to settle in for a while and remember their roots.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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