The internationally renowned Tokyo String Quartet gave a farewell performance to the Yale community last Tuesday evening, Jan. 23, in Morse Recital Hall. After serving thirty-seven years on the School of Music faculty, the quartet-in-residence has decided that its 2012-2013 season will be its last.

Replacing two retiring quartet members would be a “Herculean task,” first violinist Martin Beaver explained, and so the group has chosen to come to a “graceful close.” The quartet breathes in unison with the natural ease that accompanies the rare combination of deeply understanding both the music and each other. Each member is irreplaceable.

Dean Robert Blocker awarded a Sanford Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the School of Music, to each member of the quartet: Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola) and Clive Greensmith (cello). Peter Oundjian, current Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at the School of Music, also received the medal for his tenure as the longest serving first violinist of the quartet. In describing the quartet, Blocked praised: “They never lost their sense of passion and wonder about the music they create.”

The program opened with the dynamic energy of the Haydn Quartet in G minor. Nicknamed the “Rider” quartet for its galloping licks, the violist captured the audience immediately with his bursting energy and excitement. As the music pressed forward, the quartet switched tempi with such effortlessness that it is hard to believe they have not known each other for their entire lives.

To contrast the tonality of the first piece, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 exhibited the brilliance of each member. Each voice navigated the virtuosic passages while still maintaining perfect cohesion with the whole. When all four instruments, each made by the famous Stradivarius family, were set down to play the pizzicatos in the fourth movement, each member smiled with anticipation. While Bartók’s complex rhythms traditionally have a disorienting tendency, the TSQ seemed to be having a wonderful conversation with each other.

The opening of the Mendelssohn Quartet in E minor following intermission was the apex of the evening. The pure emotion of the floating melody expressed the passion each quartet member felt as they sang good-bye to the hall that they have learned to call home. Underneath the beauty of the melody an urgent rhythm served as an ominous reminder of the finality of the evening.

After bringing the entire hall to its feet, the quartet gave its audience an encore: Mozart’s “Hoffmeister” quartet.

It was impossible to understand what each musician was feeling as the concert progressed. The music moved through an extensive range of emotions: the energy of Haydn, the forward tones of Bartok and the rich sonorities of Mendelssohn. What shined through every note was a moving love for the wonderful music they created.