The Tokyo String Quartet in Performance at Yale

"Much good has been shown me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect. There is always some flaw in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in the divine speech. So that the Devil has something to do with every human consignment to this planet of earth." Those words are sung in the Prologue to Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd by Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, who in that far away summer of 1797 commanded the Indomitable.

Vere's observation came to mind on the evening of October 20 as the Tokyo String Quartet played a concert at Sprague Hall as part of the Chamber Music Society at Yale's 2009-2010 season. Pace, Captain Vere, but to the extent that a concert of music can be perfect, this one was. I kept listening for that fault in the angelic song and never heard it. As Vere also noted, "I am an old man who has experienced much." I have never experienced a concert quite like this.

The program was judiciously chosen: Haydn, Beethoven and Bartok. Sprague Hall was, predictably, packed to hear New Haven's longest running audience draw. No amount of experience listening to the Tokyo String Quartet could have prepared anyone for what was heard this evening.

From the opening notes of Franz Josef Haydn's Quartet in D Major (Op. 76, No. 5) a few things were very obvious: The Tokyo String Quartet has no fear of a fast tempo, their ensemble work has never been better, their musical insight more true or their technique polished to a higher gloss. From the start this had the makings of one of those rare evenings when music can turn into something approaching magic or, if you will, the song of angels.

The Allegretto of the Haydn was tossed off with the innocence and spontaneity that paradoxically can only come from practice. Despite taking it at a quick pace there were no slurred passages, no entrances that were so much as a hair's breadth off. The Largo: Cantabile e mesto paid uncommon attention to the "singing line" and achieved the requisite sadness without even a hint of being over-wrought. And after a perfectly acceptable Menuetto all of a sudden a verbunkos broke out at top speed. It takes an insight bordering on genius to play a piece of music at break-neck speed without sounding rushed or hurried, and they delivered it. "Haydn" and "thrilling" are two words seldom encountered in the same sentence. This performance deserved to have them paired with perfect justice.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Quartet in F Minor (Op. 95) "Serioso" is by no means an unfamiliar work, but I thought I heard it for the first time on October 20th. The Tokyo String Quartet manifested the rare understanding that it is menace, rather than mere gravity, that is the touchstone of interpreting this work. What all too often comes across as ponderous and brooding was here infused with foreboding and, well, menace. The pace was ideal throughout. And the ever-present sense that something awful was about to happen resulted in an emotional intensity that packed a near-physical wallop. This approach is, of course, highly dangerous as the least bit of pathos, the slightest bit of giving into over-wrought emotion will bring the entire edifice crashing down. In lesser hands this could have been a full blown disaster; instead it was among the most exciting, emotionally involving things you can do sitting up.

So after we had the opportunity to allow the nerves to calm during intermission, we were placed in a musical-emotional pressure cooker of a sort that made the Beethoven that preceded it seem as a day at the beach. If you hope to succeed, there is basically one way to approach Belá Bartók's String Quartet No. 6 (Sz. 114)(1939) and that is to start with the highest degree of technical proficiency, produce the smoothest ensemble playing possible, and then go at the first three movements with white-hot intensity. Mishandle any of them and you are consigned to the "noble effort" category instantly. Little wonder that this work is seldom heard in live performance since it misfires 97 times out of 100.

The Tokyo String Quartet, which played with technical brilliance in the Haydn and the Beethoven, utterly outdid itself here. Passages that you never, ever hear clearly in performance were clarion-like; music that cannot possibly be played as written was just that. And after three of the toughest movements in the string quartet repertoire to bring off, Bartók asks for the impossible: A final movement that expresses such profound sorrow in such complex and hideously difficult terms that audience and performers are stirred in recesses of the heart that few knew existed. Again, difficult to play and very easy to play badly. The usual practice is to play it technically well or emotionally true. What we had this evening was of another order all together: Technical excellence, emotional truth and jaw-dropping musical insight. As the work ended, cellist Clive Greensmith dropped his arm and exhaled, physically spent and emotionally exhausted. He had plenty of company.

I headed out to Sprague Hall that evening expecting to hear music. Instead I heard the song of angels. Utterly, unspeakably extraordinary.