Listening to the Tokyo String Quartet for the last time

by Rob Tiller

On Sunday afternoon Sally and I went to a concert of the Tokyo String Quartet. It was a wonderful concert by one of the world’s great chamber music groups, After 44 years, the TSQ is calling it quits after this season, so I don’t expect I’ll hear them again. It made me listen with more-than-usual concentration. They played Haydn’s quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, Webern’s five pieces Op. 5, and Schubert’s Quarter in G Major, Op. 161, D. 887.

It was such a privilege to hear these master musicians performing such great music. The group performed on Stradivarius instruments made in the early 18th century and collected by Niccolo Paganini for his own performances. Paganini loved the viola in this group he commissioned a work by Berlioz that featured it. I’ve wondered at times if the Stradivarius name was overhyped, but the sound of these instruments as individuals was gorgeous, and together they were stunningly beautiful. I particularly loved the cello, which sounded to me as rich as I’ve always imagined a cello could sound.

I particularly loved the Schubert, which has one of the most beautiful cello melodies ever written. If you do not know the piece, you should sample it. Here’s a performance on YouTube by the Skampa quartet. The TSQ’s performance was brilliant and very moving. I got major goosebumps.

As valuable as recordings are, they are no substitute for a live performance. At my last piano lesson, Olga and I discussed this. She’s drilled me in the importance of considering each tiny detail of the music, thinking about the many different ways each note could be approached, and planning out each aspect of each gesture. After all that, I was surprised to hear her say that she expected that each time we play a piece, it will be different. Each piano is different, the acoustics of each room are different, and we’ll have different feelings each time. The master musician is not a CD player.

I don’t think this is a well understood aspect of the classical tradition. I once heard an interview with James Levine (the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera), in which he said that a recorded performance was to live performance as a postcard of the Grand Canyon was to the actual Grand Canyon. I thought he meant that the sound was different, but he may have meant what Olga meant: master musicians are making unique music at a particular moment in their lives and ours, responding to subtle variables that will never again recur.