END OF DAYS This is the final lineup of the Tokyo String Quartet, which began in 1969. They performed their last concert in Seattle one week ago today.
Most students who have studied philosophy come across Theseus’s paradox. It involves a ship that is slowly replaced piece by piece as its parts weather away. The question then is whether or not the ship, ultimately composed entirely of new materials, is the same ship at all. The members of the Tokyo Quartet, which played its last ever Seattle performance a week ago today, were recently faced with a similar conundrum. Violist Kazuhide Isomura, the sole residual member of the group’s first incarnation (founded in 1969, not in Tokyo but at Juilliard), will be retiring after the quartet’s current world tour, along with second violinist Kikuei Ikeda, who joined in 1974. Instead of holding auditions to replace Isomura and Ikeda and continuing to perform as a new group under an old name, the remaining members, violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith, decided that the illustrious Tokyo Quartet will disband once and for all.
In a note to fans on the group’s website, Beaver remarks that this decision is not for a lack of fine applicants. “It is a difficult prospect to replace one long-standing quartet member,” he writes. “To replace two of them simultaneously is a Herculean task. With the retirement of our colleagues in our minds, we increasingly felt over the last few months that the most fitting way we could honor and celebrate our quartet's long and illustrious career was to bring it to a graceful close." In the meantime, Beaver and Greensmith will be forming a piano trio.
A graceful close could describe the group’s parting performance. Each member brandished immaculate clarity of tone and flawless proficiency. All playing on Stradivari instruments that once belonged to Paganini, the musicians drew plump, succulent notes that layered beside one another in buttery cohesion. The program began with Mozart’s String Quartet in D major, K. 499, or “Hoffmeister” quartet, one of the Tokyo’s favorite works, Greensmith revealed in an email interview. The piece itself is not particularly showy. Rather, it’s pleasant and understated, solid and steady, interlaid with austere minor phrases that quickly resolve into spirited counterpoint. The Adagio movement is particularly expressive, descending peacefully into a valley of sustained notes that sound something like a lullaby dappled with exclamations, as though the musicians were intermittently awakened from slumber. As commonly happens in chamber music, the venue (Meany Hall) felt too big for the ensemble, its members set in their close huddle. Despite their masterful abilities and instruments designed to project sound across extensive territory, the entire event lacked the intimacy that comes with smaller spaces.
Before intermission, the quartet performed a new work written by Lera Auerbach especially for this tour, entitled Farewell. It began with a disquieting series of violin chords that were nothing short of acerbic. An intriguing work, it did not indicate a warm, or even a despondent adieu. Instead it booted the listener out the door with a strange and eerie bravado. “The piece is ambitious, longer and more involved than [Lera’s] previous works,” Greensmith said. “Her music tends to be pretty dark and this piece is certainly no exception. One can clearly see that she has tried to evoke a palpable tension between the four players, highlighting the distinctly different timbres of each instrument, and moreover, the contrasting personalities within the group. The conclusion of the work might be best described as a catharsis.” Laced with wide glissandos and intermittent bouts of pizzicato and tremolo, a final cry from the upper region of the cello lingered into silence.
Their rendition of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major—chosen, according to Greensmith, as “a lyrical counter balance to the Auerbach”— had me completely seduced from the opening ascent. The main theme, revisited in variations, elicits a simple beauty meant for tugging heartstrings. With each reiteration, the players wove a story, perhaps about unrequited love, with an underlying swaying like ocean waves that become more turbulent as the piece progresses. I closed my eyes and imagined each re-emergence of the melody as a letter in a bottle, dipping in and out of the surf.
The quartet members themselves were tired, Greensmith alluded to in our discussion. Touring internationally (they performed throughout Europe before stopping over in North America; next is Japan, Australia, and New Zealand) and rehearsing daily was taking its toll. The performers hardly looked up from their music and at times seemed to lack the emotional fervor that engages an audience. That said, as world-weary as they conceivably were, the pieces remained technically seamless and the balance between the players impeccable, a delicate feat refined with maturity.
There were not one, but two standing ovations, between which Ikeda announced an encore, saying they would now “end with where it all began.” They launched into a jaunty piece by Haydn, the composer known as the father of the string quartet. And with that, we said goodbye to one of the most long-lived and influential professional quartets in the history of the form.