Tokyo Quartet with Markus Groh @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, September 15, 2011. Walter Hall, Toronto.

Thanks to Music Toronto, the superb Tokyo Quartet has for many years been a  twice-a-season highlight. This evening they brought their perfect ensemble, natural sense of flow, uncanny intonational accuracy and hair-trigger responsiveness to Debussy’s unique String Quartet in G min. Op.10.

The first movement, with its prominent motto theme that recurs throughout the piece in different guises, is wrapped in a typically Debussyan modal harmony, giving the whole movement a touch of the shimmering antique flavour that becomes the composer’s signature in Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faun. Here, and in the elegantly ‘pizzicated’ rhythms of the second movement, we also hear the romantic dramatics of Borodin blending with the new French enchantment.

Kazuhide Isomura’s solo viola in the Trio of the the Andantino is a spellbinder, telling a story “in all but words,” about ‘changes’; and Clive Greensmith’s slow cello narrative that opens the final movement is strangely full of suppressed laughter, perhaps giving expression to Debussy’s pleasure in his reaction against the Viennese classics.

Fortunately for our audience, the Tokyo have no problem with the Viennese classics, and gave us Brahms’ Quintet in F min. for piano and strings, Op. 34. (1862-65). An earlier incarnation of the Tokyo with Peter Oundjian on violin recorded the work with Barry Douglas on piano. This evening Markus Groh sat at the keyboard and gave the impression of totally blending with the ensemble.

The noble, Schubertian opening theme of this dark and mighty work interweaves lines of limpid grace with rhythmic tumult that pulses with contrapuntal cross-rhythms. By turns vehement and plaintive the piece develops a long narrative ornamented by a lyricism in the piano that is touchingly Chopinesque. The Scherzo is a muscular welter of undercurrents that develop an almost maniacal power. The Finale has traces of Brahmsian Tzigane dance energy, but here it is cooled, stilled, and saddened.

Jeffrey Ryan’s String Quartet No. 4, Inspirare (2011) was given it’s world première by the Tokyo Quartet. Conceived as a study of varieties of emotional breath patterns, the work begins with a keening. cantorial lament in the viola that takes flight into a region of strange harmonies where it rises and sinks in spiralling glissandos like avian flocks and insectiodal swarms: they speak to me of elemental air if not exactly of breathing. The middle part of this 16 minute work drowses a bit, then rouses itself  with great energy, jetting ‘tutti’ to a climax that dissolves into the voice of the opening viola, then tapers off into space.

Clearly, this is a work that touches the imagination, though the variety of emotional experience it offers is less clear to me. It augurs well that Inspirare has been adopted into the repetoire of the Tokyo Quartet’s current tour.

Comments are welcome HERE.

You can listen to Tokyo Quartet play the first movement of the Debussy HERE.

You can listen to the Jerusalem Quartet play the first movement of the Brahms HERE.

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