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Fond Farewell

by B.A. Nilsson on February 20, 2013

Tokyo String Quartet
Friends of Chamber Music, Emma Willard School, Feb. 17


With a fascinating program and consummate skill, the Tokyo String Quartet made its final appearance in a Friends of Chamber Music concert, capping not only a series of visits that began in 1971 but also an illustrious career, as the quartet is set to retire at the beginning of July.

The centerpiece of the program was the Quartet No. 6 by the Russian-American Lera Auerbach. One of the last artists to defect from the Soviet Union, Auerbach has developed a compositional voice that combines elements of Shostakovich and Schnittke with a restless language of her own.

Her latest quartet was commissioned before the Tokyo Quartet announced its retirement, but upon learning of their intention, she gave the piece a sense of farewell. Its first movement, “Prologue,” gets an initial energy burst from a series of solo violin chords that sound like a Baroque chaconne gone amok that also promised there’d be no conventional melodic respite. Once the cello countered the violin chords with a burst of single-line craziness, we embarked on a Kandinsky canvas of sound, its temporal nature begging a close listening in order to build a sense of the work’s design even while being carried through its emotional vicissitudes.

Tokyo String Quartet

Among its many effects were the gunshot use of the Bartók pizzicato, many forms of harmonics, abundance of glissando, and, at one point toward the Prologue’s end, a wide-vibrato gliss on the cello, giving it a Theremin sound. Auerbach’s piece at times pitted muted against unmuted instruments, as when the first violin sounded a wide-open keening atop a harmonic bed of the muted lower three.

The second movement, “Epilogue,” sent all four strings into crazy swoops before a series of slow chords set up what would be a series of shifting moods and colors, punctuated by melodic fragments that soon suggested the mood of the melancholy finish of Shostakovich’s final symphony. In the Shostakovich, the percussion batterie takes over; in the Auerbach, the cello sounds a series of arpeggios in high harmonics, passing it to a violin in order to offer a final melodic rumination, ending with ghostly trills.

What a contrast to the Sturm und Drang of the Beethoven quartet (no. 11) that opened the program! No other piece by that composer changes mood so quickly and abruptly, with the drama of the first movement reinforced by much unison writing. The second movement is marked Allegretto but feels more deliberate; here it’s a storm of distortion, as melodies are altered and a contrapuntal section goes awry before the problems are abandoned with an attacca into a furious, dotted-note Allegro assai.

Beethoven throws one of his trademark curveballs by suggesting that another slow movement will follow, but it’s only a prelude to an upbeat finish that grow frantic at its end, played with the easy expertise of an ensemble that mastered its way around Beethoven a long time ago and hasn’t let those standards flag.

Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 4 concluded the program, a work proving once again that the composer is a master of the minor-key theme, its first movement rippling between the home key of e minor and suggestions of its dominant, b minor.

Did Mendelssohn’s audiences enthusiastically anticipate each new scherzo? He pays off such expectations with fleet, virtuosic melody-fests, this one confounding those expectations slightly by being more rondo than scherzo. The slow movement was a cello showcase, the fast finale, back in the minor, kept the first violin busy with dazzling passagework.

And with no encore, which I grudgingly suggest was appropriate, the quartet took its bows and departed. They couldn’t have left on better terms.

The program thoughtfully presented Emma Willard junior Sarah Rapoport performing a brief piece for solo harp, Jacques Ibert’s 1916 Fantasie, which she presented with great poise and accomplishment.