Tokyo quartet broods over Brahms

The Tokyo String Quartet, in residency at the Yale School of Music since 1976, gave their first concert of the season last night in a packed Battell Chapel.

An all-Brahms program highlighted the refinement of sound and maturity of interpretation for which the quartet is known. After opening its program with a private-sounding interpretation of Brahms’ Quartet in C minor, op. 51 no. 1, the group — joined by Yale School of Music viola professor Jesse Levine — turned more energetically to Brahms’ viola quintets, op. 88 and 111.

In a withdrawn interpretation of the C minor quartet, the group demonstrated that the lush and brooding music of Brahms does not exclude a sense of private reflection. With the dramatic approach of an ensemble like the Cleveland Quartet more familiar to most listeners, the Tokyo quartet’s delivery of Brahms’ explicitly winding and mysterious opening could have been shocking. While most ham it up for all it’s worth, this group played with quiet restraint. It proved unnerving in its own way.

The recessive, removed approach to the piece — one most people understand as fundamentally brooding — was unsettling. The group delivered a sense of interior drama with unmatched subtlety — most strikingly by cellist Clive Greensmith, whose lushly understated, beautifully shaped playing seemed to span an emotionally vast yet restrained spectrum.

The tone the members of the Tokyo quartet established in this piece was most convincing in the lushly lilting, sun-lit middle of its third movement. There the tone by which the group achieved depth of sound seemed most appropriate. It was precisely at this moment in the piece that the group became more animated, both musically and even physically. This infused the movement’s return to its opening material with long-awaited energy, dynamic contrasts and drama. But even here, Brahms’ brooding, mysterious and harmonically wandering music seemed to operate under restraint.

Though second violinist Kikuei Ikeda’s present core of sound provided the group’s texture with the effect Brahms’ voicing demands, on the whole the audience wanted more of everything — from everyone. Especially cellist Greensmith, who, at times, seemed on the verge of breaking through whatever function of restraint was operating on the quartet.

The opening cry of the last movement — which most groups dramatize like nothing else — was delivered as if voiced inside a locked closet. Here, the quartet’s interpretive decision was strikingly intentional. The harmonic accents that most groups stress were spoken subtly. The second violin’s unprecedentedly agitated accelerando to the end of the piece demonstrated that the group is indeed capable of such an effect when it so desires.

The delivery of the Viola quintets further demonstrated the striking interiority of interpretation with which the Tokyo String Quartet approaches Brahms’ music. Although Levine matched the restraint and refinement the group achieved in the C minor quartet, the added thickness of texture his presence provided served to force the other players into a much-appreciated sense of active — but not excessive — excitement. It hardly mattered that op. 88 was not as solid as the preceding piece in terms of ensemble and intonation. At the end of the third movement, for example, the group’s whispered playing was not flat line, but rather energetically still. Although always in the group’s context of refinement and subtlety, op. 111 was even more lush than the two previous works.

By the concert’s end, the mature and restrained approach of the group seemed to have been accepted by a more agitated, excitable audience of 20-year-olds itching for more. The Tokyo String Quartet is not one to over-dramatize — which is respectable and moving in its own way.

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