The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Let us now praise the Tokyo String Quartet, which will disband after 40 years.

April 24, 2012
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, in Madison we partied as we celebrated the last of this season’s four concerts, lecture series and world premieres of commissioned works marking the centennial of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet.

There were lectures, a dinner, a question-and-answer session with American composer John Harbison and UK musicologist/music journalist Tully Potter; and a dessert reception after a FREE concert (below) that included Haydn’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 54, No. 2; Franck’s Quartet in D major; and the world premiere of John Harbison’s Quartet No. 5, commissioned by the Pro Arte.

The Pro Arte, you may recall, started in 1912 at the Belgium Conservatory in Brussels, then became the royal court quartet and got marooned in Madison when Hitler invaded their homeland in May of 1940 while they were on tour, playing a Beethoven cycle in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

So 100 years is a world record for a quartet.

Just how very impressive that fact is came home again when I learned that the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet (below) is going to disband at the end of next season – after 40 years of existence — instead of finding two replacements for two retiring original members.

They had already replaced two of the original members and changed record labels from RCA to Harmonia Mundi. The quartet has won major prizes at both labels.

The Tokyo is not alone. String quartets, and there are many of them right now, come and go.

Over decades,  the constant practicing and performing, touring and recording,  can be a strenuous way to earn a living and live a life. It takes a toll.

A few years back, it was the wonderful Guarneri Quartet, which recorded with pianist Artur Rubinstein in the 1960s and 1970s,  that disbanded. (The Guarneri played at the Wisconsin Union Theater during its farewell tour.)

The Emerson Quartet is still together and performing after some 35 years but is replacing is retiring cellist David Finckel who performed Mendelssohn’s two piano trios at the Wisconsin Union Theater this season with his pianist wide Wu Han and Emerson violinist Phillip Setzer.

I also heard the Tokyo Quartet at least once and probably more at the Wisconsin Union Theater. I especially recall a performance they gave of a Shostakovich quartet.

But they were also known for two complete Beethoven cycles plus Schubert and Mozart cycles. Of the two Beethoven cycles I especially love the six early Op. 18 quartets they recorded for a second cycle for Harmonia Mundi (below), although many listeners will prefer the middle and late quartets, pro their Dvorak, or Tchaikovsky, or their Debussy (at bottom). But I’m just a sucker for early Beethoven!

Anyway, cheers again to the Pro Arte and here is the story about the break up of the Tokyo, which allied itself to Japanese schools and then to Yale University as it followed the academic affiliation model pioneered by the Pro Arte Quartet when they became artists-in-residence at the UW after being exiled here.

Here is the story about the Tokyo Quartet ‘s approaching end:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/04/20/151063275/the-tokyo-string-quartet-bids-farewell

And here is a link to a live concert by the Tokyo Quartet on April 7 of Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven. It is available for streaming from the New York City radio station WQXR via NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

http://www.npr.org/event/music/135218789/tokyo-string-quartet-at-wqxr-watch-live-friday-7-p-m-et

Enjoy, and let’s relish the music we have left to hear from the Tokyo Quartet – both live and whatever they have “in the can” for recordings.

And finally: Thank you, Tokyo String Quartet, for so much beauty over so many years.


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