Tokyo String Quartet

Martin Beaver, violin
Kikuei Ikeda, violin
Kazuhide Isomura, viola
Clive Greensmith, cello

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Final Concert of the 2012 Season


String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4 (1772)
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Allegro di molto
Un poco adagio e affettuoso
Menuet alla zingarese
Presto e scherzando

Five Movements for String Quartet (1929)
Anton Webern (1883-1945)

Heftig bewegt (with great emotion) Tempo I - etwas ruhiger (somewhat calm) Tempo II

Sehr langsam (very slow)
Sehr bewegt (very emotional)
Sehr langsam (very slow)
In zarter Bewegung (with delicate feeling)


String Quartet in G Major, Op. post. 161, D. 887 (1826) Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Allegro molto moderato
Andante un poco moto
Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Trio: Allegretto – Scherzo
Allegro assai






















Program Notes © 2012 by Miriam Villchur Berg*


The Tokyo String Quartet has announced that this season will be their last, so this will be the Tokyo’s final performance at the Maverick. From their website:

“In the fall, we wrote to you about Kikuei and Kazu’s decision to retire. Martin and Clive had no shortage of fine applicants auditioning for the positions of second violin and viola, but after a great deal of thought, they have decided that the Tokyo String Quartet’s extraordinary forty-four-year history will officially come to an end in June of 2013.

“We have had a wonderful season, and we like to feel, as we look forward to our next (and last) season as a quartet, that we have never played better.

“But as Martin notes: ‘It is a difficult prospect to replace one long-standing quartet member. 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.’

“Warmest thanks to all the Tokyo Quartet’s audiences, past and present, who have supported and cheered us along the way.

All our best wishes,
Martin Beaver,
Kikuei Ikeda,
Kazuhide Isomura,
Clive Greensmith”

The Tokyo String Quartet has captivated audiences and critics alike since it was founded forty-four years ago. Regarded as one of the supreme chamber ensembles of the world, the Tokyo Quartet—Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola) and Clive Greensmith (cello)—has collaborated with a remarkable array of artists and composers, built a comprehensive catalogue of critically acclaimed recordings, and established a distinguished teaching record. Performing over a hundred concerts worldwide each season, the quartet has a devoted international following across the globe.

Deeply committed to coaching young string quartets, the Tokyo devotes much of the summer to the prestigious Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, having served on the faculty of the Yale School of Music as quartet-in-residence since 1976. Among other festivals this year are Santa Fe, Austin, Tucson and La Jolla, and the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan.

The Tokyo String Quartet has released more than forty landmark recordings, including the complete quartets of Beethoven, Schubert and Bartók. The quartet’s recordings have earned such honors as the Grand Prix du Disque Montreux, “Best Chamber Music Recording of the Year” awards from both Stereo Review and Gramophone magazines, IRR’s “Outstanding,” the French critics’ “Diapason d’Or,” and seven Grammy nominations.

The Tokyo Quartet has been featured on numerous television programs, including Sesame Street, CBS Sunday Morning, PBS’s Great Performances, CNN This Morning and a national television broadcast from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as well as on the soundtrack for the Sidney Lumet film Critical Care, starring Kyra Sedgwick and James Spader.

The ensemble performs on the “Paganini Quartet,” a group of renowned Stradivarius instruments named for legendary virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, who acquired and played them during the ninteenth century. The instruments have been on loan to the quartet from the Nippon Music Foundation since 1995, when they were purchased from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Officially formed in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music, the Tokyo Quartet traces its origins to the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, where the founding members were profoundly influenced by Professor Hideo Saito. The original members came to America for further study, and soon afterwards won First Prize at the Coleman Competition, the Munich Competition, and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. An exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon firmly established the group as one of the world’s leading quartets.





Joseph Haydn is considered the father of the string quartet. The six string quartets of Haydn’s Opus 20 were the first in his fully matured style, although he had already written some twenty pieces for this combination of instruments. In the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, the opening Allegro di molto presents the simplest motif possible: four repeated notes. The last note of the four is longer, and leads into a variety of melodies, all in 3/4 time. This motif unifies the movement, but also demonstrates the master’s skill in making complex and compelling music out of the most basic ideas.

The slow movement (Un poco adagio e affetuoso) uses a modified theme and variations structure. After the simple presentation of the theme, the first variation syncopates it; the second gives the cello the main line; the third has the first violin in descant triplets (three notes to a beat) above the others; and the movement ends with a recapitulation of the theme, including some modulations and development of the thematic ideas.

In the Menuet alla zingarese, the offbeat syncopation and cross accents give the music an exotic Roma (Gypsy) flavor. The quartets of Opus 20 mark Haydn’s rejection of the courtly and stylized minuet: none of the six would have been suitable to accompany actual dancers. In fact, in Haydn’s following set of string quartets, Opus 33, he changes the name of this movement to scherzo.

The use of the word scherzando in the Finale (Presto e scherzando) does not make this a scherzo. Haydn is here putting a label (scherzo literally means “joke”) on his preferred style of finales—light, carefree, and even humorous. He also demonstrates the use of imitative phrases and counterpoint, which became standard in string quartet finales throughout the Classical era. This quartet is a model of Haydnesque technique, as well as a thoroughly satisfying musical experience.

Anton Webern wrote his thesis on the Renaissance composer Heinrich Isaac. His first composition (Opus 1) was in the Baroque form of a Passacaglia. But his studies with Arnold Schönberg took him in new directions, and he became part of the Second Viennese School and a leading proponent of atonal and serialist music.

Although the title Five Movements for String Quartet implies five separate compositions, the work is in fact unified and organized in a classical way. It is atonal, meaning it is not written in a specific key, and dissonant, meaning that the harmonies are not standard, but it is not serialist, since this piece was written before Webern started using the twelve-tone technique for all his pieces.

The first movement starts with a forceful statement in bowed and plucked strings, with the cello introducing the four-note theme. Webern was an accomplished cellist, and he uses advanced string techniques to create unusual sounds, including tremolos, harmonics, vigorously plucked pizzicati, and eerie sul ponticello (near the bridge) playing.

The second movement is a lyrical song. Webern added musical directions such as “with tenderness,” “utterly tranquil,” and “as delicate as possible.” The upbeat central scherzo is about half a minute long. Throughout his career, Webern rarely repeated sections, feeling that a musical idea only needed to be expressed once. After the lively and abrupt scherzo, the fourth movement provides contrast and rest, offering a plaintive melody combined with spectral sounds.

The final movement is the longest, although it is still extremely short by the standards of most string quartets. The cello starts with a solo that maintains the haunting quality of the previous movement. As the other instruments join in, occasional chords and notes seem to appear out of thin air; the ending is an ethereal fadeout. Webern obviously liked this piece, because he arranged it for string orchestra twenty years after first writing it.

Franz Schubert wrote prolifically in the last year of his short life, even though he knew that publishers would reject most of his works (other than his lieder, which were always popular). His String Quartet in G Major, Op. post. 161, D. 887, was his last work in this genre, and would not be published or even performed for more than twenty years after his death. It is now considered a classical masterpiece, and is known as the “Great G Major” quartet.

The opening Allegro molto moderato is a tour de force which makes extensive use of tremolo triplets (groups of three notes, with rapid bowing on each note) played against a grand dotted theme. Juxtapositions abound: intense crescendos followed by pianissimos; high melodies echoed by the cello; lyrical passages contrasted with stormy sections; and a continuous interplay of major and minor modes.

In the slow second movement (Andante un poco moto), the cello starts by singing a wistful, Eastern European-inspired tune high in its range (in B minor) as the other instruments accompany. The high drama of the first movement continues, with sharply accented lines, dotted rhythms, and quick changes of mood. The minor feeling predominates up to the last minute, when the phrase is put into the major for a gentle ending.

The Scherzo (Allegro vivace) begins with a driving rhythm, contrasted in the middle Trio (Allegretto) section with a sweet dialogue between the cello and the violin. Once again, the extreme contrast is emphasized when the Scherzo section is repeated to close the movement.

In the Finale (Allegro assai), a galloping dotted figure is followed by triplets (techniques used extensively in earlier movements), and the themes alternate between major and minor (also found in earlier movements). The music, however, is fresh and completely original. It is as if the artist wanted to show how many different things can be done with just a few colors. The piece ends with a dramatic decrescendo and a final flourish.


All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy,  publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at Program Notes © 2012 by Miriam Villchur Berg