Peerless Performance 

Hot to scorching — and that's just the music

Hot to scorching — and that's just the music

The humidity was palpable last Saturday evening as I entered Guerry Hall at the University of the South for a performance by the Tokyo String Quartet. It was one of those Remembrance of Things Past nights when sounds, smells, and feelings of the present crystallize around small points of memory to bring past experiences flooding back. The heaviness of the atmosphere struck chords of nostalgia, as did the fans from the Moore-Cortner Funeral Home—they had a chromo of DaVinci’s Last Supper on the back—but it was the music-making that sounded the symphony of remembrance for the first time that I sat transfixed by four string players making incomparable music. I trust that memories of a lifetime were made at Sewanee last weekend.

No recording that I have heard by the Tokyo String Quartet prepared me for the high level of musicianship displayed at this concert, a special feature of the 40th annual Sewanee Summer Music Festival. My personal preference has been for those ensembles in which the team was made up of superb soloists. Quartets like the Alban Berg Quartet, the old Juilliard Quartet, and the Kohon Quartet, with their aggressive, almost gritty sound, have been responsible for the performances to which I have returned time and again. All too often, I have found that ensembles noted for their burnished sound and well-integrated performances did so at the expense of tension and vivacity. Last Saturday’s performance by the Tokyo Quartet was marked by incomparable blend as well as uncommon life.

This was evident from the very first piece, the Mozart Quartet for Strings in D Major, K. 575. For concertgoers who have cut their musical teeth on Bartók and Beethoven, this music is pretty tame, not to say bland. It’s marked by balance, proportion, and a certain Enlightenment smugness; it is by turns graceful, fashionable, limpid, and transparent, but it doesn’t have great tunes or the depth of emotion that the high Köchel number might suggest. The Tokyo people nailed this stuff to the wall.

I cannot ever remember hearing such well-blended sound at a live performance. Sometime about the beginning of the second movement of this Mozart quartet, I began to close my eyes occasionally so that I couldn’t see who was playing. The Tokyo quartet’s uncanny knack of handing the musical phrase from one player to another with no break in continuity was a phenomenon that I have never heard so skillfully done. I can only liken this ability to that of a singer with superior range who can move from chest voice to head voice to falsetto with no detectable break. The attention to blend was also noticeable in the group’s phrasing: Phrases were not so much attacked as begun, the beginnings of each phrase slipping so smoothly into gear that the playing was one seamless piece of work.

During the opening of the second movement, there was a moment marked by an extended conversation between the viola and cello that reminded me there is a stylistic approach to vibrato. The sound was particularly rich and well-rounded, due in no small measure to an agreement as to the nature of vibrato. Readers with a long memory will recall some remarks I made about a symphony soloist with a perfectly modulated vibrato that was fatiguing in both its mechanical constancy and in its overuse—from beginning to end, each note shook like southern California. To counter this tonal Jell-O, some original-instruments puritans approach classical-period string tone with the white-noise approach, the result being that each note sounds like a saw cutting through the strings. The Tokyo folks are not afraid of vibrato, but to call again on an example from the vocal art, they instinctively apply vibrato to each note at exactly the right time. This is using vibrato in the correct way; I hope the students at Sewanee were paying particular attention to this lesson.

Some of the extreme grace and polish of the Mozart was carried over into the Tokyo’s performance of the Shostakovich String Quartet, op. 110. Some listeners might think this a mistake, given the obvious brutality of the piece. (Indeed, in both the recordings I own and in the three or four live performances that I’ve encountered, the slashing-motor rhythms and Bartókian elements of this music have pushed all other elements aside.) With the Shostakovich, however, that grace turned to an almost cinematic glossiness in which the interesting undercurrents in the music were sacrificed to surface banality. When the glossiness was allied to the unyielding tempi of this performance, what emerged was a film score to an interior life in a time of unparalleled horror—and that is exactly what Shostakovich intended to convey here.

First and foremost, this music is about the influence of Stalin. Those moments of desolation are lamentations for the society and the civilization destroyed by the purges. Those moments of maniacal intensity are the sleepless nights of liquidation lists in the Kremlin offices and the machinery of state disposal in the Lubyanka basements and Katin forest. Not only does the surface banality speak of the duplicity needed to stay alive in this idolatrous society, it is a clear musical statement of the banality of evil. Even the cinematic quality of the writing mirrors the fact that the composer made his living scoring films in a society where the chief film critic was the man who signed the execution orders for Shostakovich’s friends and patrons.

Yes, I missed the grittiness of other performances, but the Tokyo Quartet performance was emotionally exhausting. The audience knew that this was something special, and their ovation showed it.

The Ravel String Quartet in F Major, which closed the program, was yet another classic performance. The shifts from mellowness to melancholy, the tricky syncopations, the pizzicati sections, even the sad courtly reminiscences of La Valse and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales in the finale made this performance a keeper. Tempi were never allowed to flag, even in those moments when Ravel wrote purposely disjointed music. The taste, balance, and polish so evident in the Mozart were added to with meltingly beautiful attention to melody here. By the end, the audience was on its feet with an ovation punctuated by well-deserved rebel yells. The audience got an encore of a Bartok movement, but I basked in the memory of a concert more than 20 years ago when my first hearing of this Ravel quartet opened my ears to chamber music.

If you couldn’t make it down to Sewanee for this remarkable evening, you have a final chance to savor the delights of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival this weekend. The festival concludes with a four day mini-festival that includes a concerto composition and a concert of works composed by some of the festival’s participants. The Tokyo String Quartet will be back in town this coming Oct. 11 as part of TPAC’s New Direction’s Series. No doubt new memories will be made on both occasions. Well-blended The Tokyo String Quartet

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