These two quartets, Harp and Serioso, cap the end of Beethoven's middle period, the first looking back to the Rasumovsky Quartets and the second looking forward to the late quartets. They are works of the very highest accomplishment and this disc would make an excellent introduction to the string quartets for a first-time listener, just as it will thrill the avid collector. The Tokyo Quartet, forty years old this year, has matured significantly over the years, and this is one of their finest recordings. All their trademark strengths are there -- the tight ensemble, the wonderful string tone and superb rhythmic energy -- but along with these comes a new-found ability to strike right to the heart of the music, to let Beethoven speak for himself.
Today's Tokyo String Quartet comprises Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda (violins), KazuhideIsamura (viola and only founding member in the quartet) and Clive Greensmith (cello). They play on a set of Stradivarius instruments once owned by Paganini, appearing regularly in the major musical centers while devoting a great deal of energy to mentoring upcoming string quartets. They appear regularly at the St Lawrence Center in Toronto where I have followed their progress over many years.
This disc is part of a new series of Beethoven quartet recordings on the Harmonia Mundi label, recorded in high resolution sound and issued on hybrid SACD discs. The sound on the redbook layer is as good as it gets for that medium, but it comes nowhere near the superb spacious acoustic, enormous dynamic range and the astonishing level of detail revealed on the SACD layer. This is exactly why you buy a good SACD player.
These are works that bring out the best in performers, and I spent a splendid morning digging into my collection to see how this disc holds up musically. The 1989 performance from the Tokyo quartet (same name, but only two of the same players) does not represent the best of that set (look to Opus 18 for that). The Tokyo display surface brilliance and offer beautiful textures and excellent articulation, but they fail to get to the real heart of these masterworks. The sound is rather bright and typical of early digital, including a fair amount of hole-in-the-middle stereo.
With some relief I switched to the 1953 recording of the Hungarian Quartet on EMI, their first and the world's second complete cycle of Beethoven String Quartets. The gruff mono sound is excellent for the time, and suits the Hungarian admirably. Here surface brilliance is of no concern. You can play these recordings a hundred times and never tire of them, so keenly do they reflect the composer's muse. There is strength here, and structure, but no conscious point making. For another very different take, listen to The Vegh Quartet in the analog stereo recording from 1973, on the Valois label. SandorVegh was in fact the original first violin of the Hungarian Quartet, switching almost immediately to second violin before leaving to lead his own quartet. Here is wonderful music making indeed, but using much slower tempi and printing a very strong interpretive stamp on the music. I love these performances, but I find the heavy breathing to be quite a distraction. I think these would be the ideal performances to have heard live.
But saving the best for last, we have this brand new recording from the Tokyo String Quartet, second to none for musical content, and streets ahead of the pack sonically. What makes it so special? Ensemble. Not just the ability to play closely together, as did the earlier Tokyo Quartet. This time they are no longer four string players but an integrated whole, with the first violin an equal rather than a leader. The phrasing and string tone are so uncannily coordinated it is as if one mind controls a 16-stringed instrument. Textures emerge more clearly, and it is easier to hear deep into the intricate score. The musicians are also much more comfortable in their own skin, and less inclined to point making. In many ways the performances are now simpler and more direct, but imbued with greater passion and grace than before.
The third movement Presto of Opus 74 best illustrates the Quartet's artistry. This is almost a reworking of the fate motif from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. To me, it illustrates just how much higher Beethoven's achievements are in chamber music than in the works for full orchestra. The fugal development after the initial statement of the theme offers contrasting tonality for each part so we can understand the lines without effort, and the movement proceeds at high speed with full clarity, in a style that Mendelssohn would later make his own. It is hard to turn to any of the other versions after you have heard the attack, passion and exuberance the Tokyo now bring to the music. This is virtuosity of the highest order.
The slow movement of Opus 95 brings out different qualities. The music itself is looking forward to the Grosse Fugue. The playing here is beautifully ethereal, while held under the tightest discipline to reveal relationships I have never before noticed. The opening cello scale sets the tone, and all the others respond precisely to that phrasing, momentum and tone. It is as if once that phrase is sounded, everything else follows logically and inevitably from it. That is mature playing, and surely is what Beethoven was looking for.
When you couple this elite music making with the superb quality of the recording, so successful at locating the instruments firmly in their positions, you get closer to Beethoven's intentions and the music making has the power to affect you most deeply.
The timings on the new disc are a fraction slower than the earlier set, and appear very well judged. They are similar to the Hungarian recordings and faster than the Vegh. There is a natural flow to the music that again brings us closer to the Hungarians, but the precision of the playing, especially in the smaller details, is of another order altogether, and always at the service of the music rather than for virtuosity's sake. In the eighties when I first heard them, the Tokyo String Quartet performed wonders in Haydn, Bartok and Debussy, where their ravishing tone and clarity of line set them apart from other leading quartets, but they were perhaps too young to be the best interpreters of the mature Beethoven. Now they have entered a new period of maturity, and those of us fortunate enough to live in a city where they play regularly (and can afford the price of admission) are privileged indeed. For everyone else, there is this recording.
In every way, this is a most successful release.