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Concert review: Tokyo String Quartet galvanizes with start of Bartók cycle

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The Tokyo String Quartet proved once again on Thursday-night at a Jane Mallett Theatre recital why it is considered to be one of the finest chamber ensembles in the world.

Led by Canadian violinist Martin Beaver, violinists Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Clive Greensmith presented their first installment of a planned full cycle of six string quartets by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) for Music Toronto.

This Bartók cycle is a fitting goodbye to to Ikeda and Isomura, the final two original members of the Tokyo quartet, which they helped found at the Juilliard School of Music in 1969. They have announced that they are leaving the group in June, 2013.

The capacity audience may not have left the hall humming sweet melodies, but it’s a sure bet that most people went home impressed by the tremendous show of fine musicianship they had just witnessed.

As as been the tradition of this ensemble since its earliest days, Thursday night’s recital was all about serious music interpreted with the highest level of technical precision, harnessed to communicate the widest possible range of expression.

Four sober-looking men in black suits sat down on stage to present music that radiated inner fire.

The programme opened with Joseph Haydn’s exuberant Op. 64, No. 4 String Quartet in G Major, which dates from 1790. It is a gem of Classical style, with four beautifully structured movements that pass around thematic ideas with the ease and grace of a busker juggling bowling pins in a park.

While the Tokyo’s interpretation was deeply polished, it also bristled with the playfulness of Haydn’s musical ideas.

It made a fine warmup for the evening’s two main courses of Hungarian modernism.

Bartók came of age during a time when folk songs across Europe and North America had been recognized as essential components of a national culture and its expression, even in art music. He steeped himself in their melodies and rhythms, then distilled them into a new musical language notable for its rhythmic vigour — and dissonance.

String Quartet No. 1, which had its first performance in 1910, is as formally structured as anything Haydn wrote, but the music comes out, in slow passages, as long, plaintive melodic figures that rub up against each other and become intertwined. Faster sections are notable for their driving, urgent rhythms.

String Quartet No. 2, written during World War I, is even darker and more complex.

Throughout this technically challenging music, the four men on stage played as one — sounding like one body and one soul possessing four perfectly coordinated bows.

Slower sections became almost sensual in their long, aching phrases. But, just when one might have thought that the interpretations were becoming too polished, the music would erupt in a mad, sharp-edged dance.

It was the sort of recital that leaves the listener feeling spent — and deeply satisfied.

The Tokyo String Quartet returns to Music Toronto twice next season with programmes that pair a Haydn work with two quartets by Bartók: January 10, 2013 for the Hungarian’s fourth and fifth String Quartets; and April 4, 2013 for Nos. 3 and 6.

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