The Tokyo String Quartet at Bard

This past Saturday I went to see The Tokyo String Quartet at Bard College. Each member of The Tokyo String Quartet has undeniably flawless technique and I can appreciate their playing for that reason, but I was not entranced by their performance, which is something I search to be.

The program:

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN

String Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, No. 1
Allegro con spirito
Adagio Sostenuto
Minuet: Presto
Allegro ma non troppo

ANTON WEBERN

String Quartet, Op. 28
Massig
Gemachlich
Sehr Fliessend

Rondo in D Minor for String Quartet

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132
Assai sostenuto – Allegro
Allegro ma non tanto
Andante – Molto Adagio – Andante – Molto adagio
Alla marcia, assai vivace – Pui allegro
Allegro appassionato – Presto

I enjoyed the Haydn very much, the second movement in particular. It brought to mind the image of a slow proccession of an army of ghosts… There were also beautifully lyrical and soaring melody lines for the first violin which I found quite moving. I don’t care very much for some of the more modern, atonal pieces, which is what the first Webern piece The Tokyo String Quartet played was. I enjoy Shostakovich, whom many people consider too modern for their own tastes, but Shostakovich still retains some form of melody, even among all the dissonance. That is something which was lacking from the Webern quartet. I did enjoy the second Webern piece though, the Rondo, which blended traditional tonality with an essence of atonality. It had interesting textural passages which were stunningly beautiful at times. The piece ended with all four instruments plucking the strings, and finally just the first violin and cello plucking the final few notes. As for the Beethoven Quartet, I found The Tokyo String Quartet’s perfomance of it rather dry. Although they played it with the same technical flawlessness with which they approach and perform every piece, I was not stirred. In fact, I found it to be a bit long and tedious. I know that the piece is long to begin with, but take Brahm’s Piano Sonata Op. 5. It has five movements, and takes 30-40 minutes to play in it’s entirety. That said, however many pages it may be (41, depending on your edition), if you play it with the same spirit which all music should be played with, the audience will not be bored for one moment.

Although I admire The Tokyo String Quartet for their brilliance and mastery of their instruments, their dedication, knowledge, and the longevity of their careers, I would have liked for the music to come alive more. The quartet was founded over 30 years ago, and my observations at Bard were that they aren’t driven by passion anymore. Yes, they play in true classicism style, which is generally more refined and held back, but even in classicism there is still an element of spirit which I felt was lacking in The Tokyo String Quartet’s performance.

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