String Quartet No. 10,
Op. 74, “Harp.”
String Quartet No. 1,
Tokyo Str Qrt
HÄNSSLER 93.723 (79:24) Live: Schwetzingen 5/11/1971
As the Tokyo Quartet prepares to break up at the end of the 2012-2013 season, the Hänssler label offers a memento of its earliest years, when it made a strong impression with the euphonious sound and jewel-like precision of its performances. The concert performances on this disc were recorded at the 1971 Schwetzingen Festival, two years after the quartet was founded. On this program the ensemble offers a Beethoven standby, framed by early works of two of the greatest 20th-century composers.
In preparing another review for this issue, I compared a good many performances of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet in terms of tempo and timings. This Tokyo rendition is one of the quickest in the first and third movements, one of the more deliberate in the second movement, and in the mainstream for the finale, where the degree of variation is limited. In the first movement, after a fairly deliberate and deeply felt introduction, the main tempo is indeed fast, with a seamless flow, but the very short timing is also conditioned by the lack of an exposition repeat, which is usually included in later recordings. The comparatively deliberate second movement is straightforward but tastefully expressive and sustains continuity well. The scherzo, lacking the first repeat, is brilliant and fast-paced, if a bit less angry than in some renditions. The difference in tempo between the scherzo and trio appears minimal, although Beethoven specifies that the latter should be faster (
Piú presto quasi prestissimo
). The finale is fluent and effective, with each variation appropriately characterized. A dimension that is missing from this performance is the silken tone for which the Tokyo players were noted, which the 1971 live recording fails to capture, but one can still discern many of the qualities that impressed listeners when this ensemble appeared on the scene.
Alban Berg’s early two-movement String Quartet receives a thoroughly persuasive and brilliantly played performance. Despite longer timings (10:24 and 10:44 versus 9:45 and 10:09), the Tokyo rendition is no less urgent and highly charged than that of the Alban Berg Quartet (EMI). What is noticeable is the greater linearity and lyrical flow generated by the Tokyo players, which helps to sustain continuity amid the myriad tempo changes within each movement. The comparatively dry sound of the Schwetzingen recording is less of a disadvantage in Berg’s astringent timbres. I don’t know if the Tokyo Quartet ever produced a studio recording of this work, but none are currently available.
Bartók’s First Quartet, completed in 1909, is almost exactly contemporaneous with the 1910 Berg work, and the combination of the two creates an interesting juxtaposition of styles. The Bartók work seems a bit more traditional, at least in terms of the relative consistency of tempo within movements, but the overall form is far from conventional. The opening contrapuntal slow movement is reminiscent of the fugal opening movement of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14, op. 131, as is the lack of pauses between movements. The acceleration in tempo from one movement to the next is also unusual. As elsewhere in this program, the playing by the Tokyo Quartet is polished but also passionate and intense. In comparison to fine performances by the Emerson and Juilliard quartets (on DG and Sony, respectively), the Tokyo rendition seems more linear, elastic, and spontaneous. I must note, however, that the track marker for the third and final movement is misplaced, a couple of minutes past the beginning of the movement. I’m not familiar with the ensemble’s much later studio recording of this work, for DG.
I have referred to the sonic limitations of this live recording, which lacks the smoothness, transparency, color, and definition one would expect from a good studio recording of this period or later. The sound is at its best where the music is loudest and most densely scored. The massed sound of the ensemble is usually well presented. The soundstage is two-dimensional, spacious in width but not in depth. Notwithstanding the shortcomings noted, the sound is more than listenable and good enough to allow one to appreciate the performances. The occasional audience noises are not too intrusive.
This release offers an interesting and satisfying program. I recommend it for its fine performances and as a document of this soon-to-be late and lamented ensemble’s early concertizing activity.