Tokyo String Quartet in the Melbourne Review

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SWANSONG FOR A JAPANESE GREAT

Melbourne Review, May 2013

By GRAHAM STRAHLE

After 44 years on the concert stage, the Tokyo String Quartet has decided to call it a day.

The much admired ensemble, which became one of Deutsche Grammophon’s staple recording artists through the 70s and won particular acclaim for their performances of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, will give its final international concerts in Australia and New Zealand in coming weeks before disbanding on its return to the US in early July.

The decision came after the last founding member, violist Kazuhide Isomura, announced his intention to retire last November. In turn, the Quartet’s only other Japanese member, Kikuei Ikeda, also chose to bow out, following 39 years’ service as the group’s second violinist. That left the remaining members, Canadian violinist Martin Beaver and English cellist Clive Greensmith, with the difficult choice of whether to recruit two new players –Japanese if the group was to retain its national heritage – or disband.

They chose the latter, and thus closes another chapter in the history of great string quartets of the modern era. With the exit of the Alban Berg and Guarneri quartets in 2008 and 2009, that just leaves the Borodins as the last senior post-war quartet still operating.

Beaver says it was “definitely a shock” when his Japanese colleagues announced their intention to leave during one of the group’s rehearsals. He and Greensmith immediately went about auditioning new players of Asian background, even performing with some in informal concerts. He relates what happened: “Clive and myself received the blessing of our retiring colleagues to try out a number of replacements, and a number turned out to be great players. Certainly it could have worked.

“But through the process, Clive and I thought that with the group’s name being what it is, there were some nationalistic if not ethnic prerequisites for the group, and we felt it increasingly hard to continue on its tradition. Should we invite two Japanese players? Or is one enough? Should we change the name? All the questions we were thinking of seemed insurmountable, and ultimately all four of us felt that the best way to honour what the group has done is to bring it to a graceful close, when we are all playing well together.”

Surprisingly, the Tokyo String Quartet has never based itself in Tokyo, but has instead called New York its home ever since it formed at the Juilliard School in 1969, while its four original members were students there. Nevertheless, the quartet continues to visit Japan twice a year, and Beaver believes it has made a profound contribution to Japanese culture over the years. “The group has notched up many milestones,” he says, “but first and foremost, here was a musically strong ensemble founded by four Japanese players that became internationally respected for their performances of chamber music. This was a huge achievement for Japanese culture.”

The group’s musical highpoints, says Beaver, were its two recordings of the complete quartets of Beethoven, one in the mid-90s for RCA and a new one for Harmonia Mundi, the last volume of which came out in 2010. He is personally proudest of the second cycle, having been first violinist when it was recorded, but he says both sets were a pinnacle for the group for which he would like it to be remembered.

He says its “technical precision and strong musical unanimity” are what the Tokyo String Quartet has contributed to quartet playing. “The group has always been striving to project as one instrument while trying to preserve each player’s individual character to an extent,” he explains. “We are either a leaderless group or a quartet of four leaders. All of us have very strong opinions, which at moments makes it an exercise in international diplomacy, but when one of us comes up with the right idea at the right time, it can change in a heartbeat.”

Beaver adds: “We’ve had our ups and downs just like any ensemble. Generally however, we’ve been a smooth running group. There have been no knockdown punches. We have always shown a Japanese politeness and respect toward each other.”

All four have Japanese wives, which may help explain it. Other than that, Beaver says the Tokyo String Quartet is tied to no particular culture. “We definitely consider ourselves a cosmopolitan group. With our mix of nationality and exposure to many countries, we are truly an ensemble of the world.”

Tokyo String Quartet plays at the Melbourne Recital Centre on May 28 at 7:00pm and May 30 at 8:00pm.

For tickets and more information, visit http://www.musicaviva.com.au/whatson/international-concert-season-2013/artists-touring/tokyo_string_quartet

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