Tokyo String Quartet

Tokyo String Quartet

Martin Theatre
Thursday, August 13, 2009
4:30 PM
Donor Gates Open
5:00 PM
Public Gates Open
8:00 PM
Concert Starts
Reserved $40/$25
Lawn $10



Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5 (Hob. III:79)

Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”)


Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 (“Razumovsky”)
    Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando
    Adagio molto e mesto
    Thème russe: Allegro

About The Artist

Comprising violinists Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Clive Greensmith, the Tokyo String Quartet was formed in 1969 at The Juilliard School but traces its origins to the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, where the founding members were influenced by Professor Hideo Saito. Soon after its creation the quartet won first prizes at the Coleman Competition, Munich Competition and Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Deeply committed to coaching young string quartets, the quartet devotes much of the summer to the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival and has served on the faculty of the Yale School of Music as quartet-in-residence since 1976. The quartet has released more than 40 recordings on such labels as BMG/RCA Victor Red Seal, Angel-EMI, CBS Masterworks, Deutsche Grammophon and Vox Cum Laude, including the complete quartets of Beethoven, Schubert and Bartók. These recordings have earned numerous honors, including the Grand Prix du Disque Montreux, “Best Chamber Music Recording of the Year” awards from both Stereo Review and Gramophone magazines and seven Grammy nominations. Having been featured on the soundtrack of the Sidney Lumet film Critical Care, the ensemble has also appeared on the television programs Sesame Street, CBS Sunday Morning, PBS’s Great Performances and CNN This Morning. Marking the fifth year of its residency at New York’s 92nd St. Y last season, the Tokyo Quartet kicked off an ambitious three-year cycle performing Beethoven’s 16 string quartets. The quartet performs on a group of Stradivarius instruments known as “The Paganini Quartet,” which has been loaned to the ensemble by the Nippon Music Foundation. The Tokyo String Quartet first appeared at Ravinia Festival in 1985 and now returns for its 17th season.

Program Notes

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)

Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5 (Hob. III:79)

The string quartet occupied Haydn throughout most of his career as a composer. He wrote the first of his 68 quartets, which were entitled divertimentos as an indication of their lighter musical style and informal social function, as early as 1757. During the next 45 years Haydn elevated the genre to an art form on a level of sophistication with the symphony and concerto. By the time he composed his final quartet—the unfinished D Minor Quartet, Op. 103, of 1803—he had established both the formal design and texture of the string quartet. Haydn never ceased his experimentation within the genre, and the later quartets demonstrate the flexibility of his approach.

Haydn composed the six Op. 76 string quartets in 1796 and 1797 while working on the oratorio The Creation. Count Joseph Erdödy, an important patron of music in Vienna, had requested the works the previous year. Some of this music was completed in June 1797 and performed for the Swedish diplomat in Vienna, Frederik Samuel Silverstolpe, who wrote: “A few days ago I went to see Haydn again, who now lives right next to me, since he gave up his customary winter and spring lodgings in one of the suburbs [Gumpendorf] and moved a whole quarter-of-a-mile away. On this occasion he played to me, on the piano, violin quartets which a certain Count [Erdödy] has ordered from him and which may be printed only after a certain number of years. These are more than masterly and full of new thoughts.”

Artaria published these, Haydn’s last completed set of string quartets, in 1799 in two volumes of three quartets each: the first appeared as Op. 75, and the second as Op. 76. The London publisher Longman Clementi & Co. joined these six under a single opus number (Op. 76) later that year. Although Haydn observed the four-movement structure typical of string quartets, he explored unusual tonal relationships, concentrated melodic writing and new formal designs within individual movements. The fresh approach was immediately recognized by the public, and a writer for the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung commented: “These quartets, the announcement and arrival of which have really delighted the reviewer, are again proof of the inexhaustible, never-ending source of mood and wit that come from their famous composer; they are wholly worthy of him. The reviewer could hardly single out any as being the best, for they are all original and beautiful.”

Quartet No. 5 opens with an unpretentious Allegretto theme in 6/8 time. Haydn places this simple melody within a complex formal scheme combining theme and variations, ternary and sonata forms. The Largo movement is a monothematic sonata form in the unusual key of F-sharp minor. Its cantabile e mesto first-violin theme opens with a rising arpeggio. The same melody, in C-sharp major and played by the cello, serves as the second theme. The minuet begins with a rising arpeggiated chord similar to the Largo’s opening theme. By contrast the minor-key trio contains steady eighth-note rhythm in the cello’s lower register. Haydn reveals the witty side of his personality in the finale’s first theme, which opens with a repeated cadential figure before the quiet, descending first-violin line. A contrasting theme begins with a rising duet between the two violins that shares a rhythmic outline with the first theme. The cadential figure, which appeared out of context at the beginning of the movement, provides a conclusive ending.



LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854-1928)

Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”)

Czech composer Leoš Janáček maintained a close relationship with Kamila Stösslová during the last 11 years of his life. The two met in July 1917 while Kamila and her husband, David Stössel, vacationed at the Moravian spa town of Luhacovice. At first the composer developed an innocent friendship with Kamila during outdoor walks and private conversations. One month later Janáček invited the young couple (both were less than half his age) to meet his wife, Zdenka, in Brno. A vigorous correspondence with Kamila ensued, which continued unabated until the composer’s death. More than 700 letters survive—the majority from the composer—as evidence of their growing romantic involvement, although Janáček never legally divorced Zdenka. These closely guarded documents only recently appeared in a complete Czech edition (Svatava Pribánová, 1990) and a selective English edition (John Tyrrell, 1994).

Janáček announced a new string quartet to Kamila on January 29, 1928. Emboldened by growing public awareness of their relationship, the septuagenarian composer erupted in a musical confession of love. This quartet portrayed significant events in their relationship. Janáček wrote on February 1, 1928: “The first movement I did already at Hukvaldy. The impression when I saw you for the first time. I’m now working on the second movement. I think that it will flare up in the Luhacovice heat . . . A special instrument will particularly hold the whole thing together. It’s called the viola d’amore—the viola of love. Oh how I’m looking forward to it! In that work I’ll be always only with you! No third person beside us.”

One week later Janáček continued his description. “I’m writing the third of the ‘Love Letters.’ For it to be very cheerful and then dissolve into a vision which would resemble your image, transparent, as if in the mist. In which there should be the suspicion of motherhood.” After four more days of continuous labor; “I’m now putting the finishing touches on these ‘Love Letters’ so that everybody will understand them: here they kissed, there they longed for one another, here . . . here they said they belonged to each other forever! Perhaps people will guess this!” The programmatic narrative concluded with the quartet’s completion on February 19: “The last movement . . . [sounds] with a great longing—and as if it were fulfilled. I’m curious what effect it will have.”

Janáček reflected on this metaphysical significance while preparing the final manuscript version of his quartet, now renamed “Intimate Letters” (March 8): “I can’t say which incidents I communicate in these ‘Intimate Letters.’ Whether those, where the earth trembled—whether when you slumped in that chair as if cut down . . . All this feeling as if it were piled up on itself—as if it had lifted you and me from the earth, as if everything around was joyfully, longingly hovering; and in that feverish mood these ‘Intimate Letters’ were born. I’m so glad at how my pen was burning when it wrote it! How quickly, how pantingly it wrote! How it didn’t want to stop! So you’ve got something new for the album, something that can never be destroyed. I ask fate, or, if you like, God, for these moments of our life never to fade away in us. And I have tears in my eyes at these words. I love you so much; and how happy I am for that reason.”

These autobiographical details provide crucial background for understanding Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”). Despite its traditional four-movement construction, this work forgoes Classical formal designs for a sequence of loosely organized mood-vignettes. Rapid juxtapositions of divergent expressions—at once highly romantic, tragic or tumultuous—capture the aged composer’s volcanic emotions. The quintessential elements of Janáček’s style are more finely blended in this work than many of his earlier compositions. Moravian folk music contributes a distinctive melodic construction, an accumulation of varied fragments operating within a narrow pitch range. Harmonies range from luscious post-Romantic chords to sharply dissonant sonorities. Variation technique and quasi-refrain forms impose necessary organizational coherence. 

Rehearsals by the Moravian Quartet exposed the unsuitability of the viola d’amore, a viola-like instrument with an additional set of sympathetically vibrating strings. Instead the musicians reverted to the standard string quartet grouping for their private performances at Janáček’s house in Brno on May 18 and 25, 1928. This ensemble gave the official public premiere on September 25, 1928—six weeks after Janáček’s death—at the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno. The autograph manuscript became Janáček’s final gift to Kamila Stösslová.



Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 (“Razumovsky”)

Beethoven began concentrated work on his second set of string quartets on May 26, 1806, although preliminary sketches of the themes date from an earlier time. Several years had elapsed since his first collection of six quartets was published in 1800 as Op. 18. This intervening period brought a dramatic change in Beethoven’s personality and musical style. The tragic onset of deafness, which he secretly confessed in the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802, compelled him to withdraw from society rather than admit his infirmity. The breadth and emotional depth of his compositions grew in relation to the intensity of his inner turmoil. With the creation of the three Op. 59 quartets, however, Beethoven began to accept his disability, writing among the musical sketches: “Let your deafness no longer be a secret—even in art.”

The Op. 59 commission came from Count Andrey Kyrillovich Razumovsky, ambassador of the Russian Tsar in Vienna. One contemporary account characterized the count in the following manner: “Razumovsky lives in Vienna like a prince, encouraging art and science, surrounded by a luxurious library and other collections and admired and envied by all.” An amateur violinist, Razumovsky frequently participated in performances of Haydn’s quartets, and after 1808 he provided financial support for the Schuppanzigh Quartet, an ensemble that gave premieres of several quartets by Beethoven. Razumovsky remained one of Beethoven’s principal patrons until a fire destroyed his palace in Vienna on December 31, 1814, and he returned to Russia. These three quartets were the first works written for Razumovsky, who stipulated that Russian folk tunes should be employed. Beethoven incorporated actual folk songs in the first two quartets and composed an original melody in the folk style for the third.

The “Razumovsky” quartets are composed on a broader, more symphonic scale than those in Beethoven’s earlier collection. This quality contributed to their ambivalent reception, as stated by the critic of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung on February 27, 1807: “Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven string quartets, dedicated to the Russian Ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are also attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended.”

The quartet begins with an expansive sonata form in F major. Its opening theme comprises a rising melody presented initially by the cello, then continued by the violin. A further idea is a pastoral duet by the violins, repeated by the lower strings. The secondary theme in C major gradually ascends to a high, sustained pitch in the first violin. Development begins with the first theme. Fugue-like writing leads to the quiet return of the cello theme. A sizeable coda continues the exploration of the opening theme. Although the second movement retains the scherzo’s lighter character, its structure is a sonata form with development. 

The Adagio molto e mesto is an impassioned movement of epic proportions. Two principal themes—a moving violin line in F minor and an expressive C-minor theme played by the cello in its high register—provide the melodic material. A cryptic note accompanying the first theme in the composer’s sketchbook provides some background to the emotional content of this movement: “A willow or acacia over my brother’s grave.” Unfortunately the true meaning of this inscription remains an enigma, since Beethoven’s two brothers were still alive. The development, wide-ranging in its harmonic content, introduces a new cantabile theme. Both main melodies return in F minor. A coda concludes with a violin flourish and trill, which proceed without interruption to the finale.

Beethoven opens the Allegro with a cello presentation of the thème russe, a melody the composer discovered in a collection of Russian folk music by Ivan Prach. In its original setting, this tune (“Akh! talan li moi, talan takoi”—“Ah, my luck, such luck”) was slow, somber and in a minor key. Beethoven transforms its character in this rapid F-major movement. A gentle, chromatic second-violin melody serves as the contrasting theme in C minor. Development uses motives from the Russian theme. Both themes return in F major, the second with a trace of minor. A lengthy coda includes a fugato section, and the tempo slows briefly before a presto conclusion.


--Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009