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The Tokyo Quartet: Beethoven: The "Late" Quartets

AAJ Staff By

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Just as any real and informed music fan is familiar with the Duke Ellington "Blanton Webster Band," Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959), and Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens recordings, so should they also be immersed in Beethoven's famous late string quartets. There are pre-echoes of twentieth century popular music harmony here, but additionally, there is a depth that travels beyond music.

These late quartets—said to summarize all Beethoven's musical explorations—have been recorded by the esteemed Tokyo Quartet in amazing color. The Op 135 quartet, the last of all, asks, in a variation on Beethoven's own poignant question, written in the manuscript score of this work and paraphrased here, "Must it be [that the Tokyo Quartet will record versions as fantastic as this]?. The answer is, "Yes, it must."

The Tokyo Quartet has, in an earlier guise, recorded these quartets before, and excellently. This set has been particularly praised for its sound quality, its feel, and its drama. The cello sounds like it's in the room. Speaking again of Op 135, the cello also sounds, in one area, like 17th century baroque music: a special quality of these quartets is that, in a sense, all the history of music to that date can be heard, not just Beethoven's. In communicating this, the Tokyo Quartet has outdone itself.

Some of this music is almost beyond belief. In the fourth part of Op 135, Beethoven has a section of strong riffing tonic, second and third notes swinging like late nineteenth century symphonic music, or even a jazz bassist. Elsewhere, there is simply the deepest philosophical feeling.

Shostakovich and others were still writing this music nearly 150 years later. In that sense, this music of Beethoven may still be the last word in instrumental music, period.

The Tokyo Quartet, formed in 1969, is based in New York. Though there have been some changes in its members, there has only ever been the one viola player, and just two cellists and second violinists. The Quartet has received seven Grammy nominations.

The Quartet's distinctive, upfront style has long been in evidence, for example an early '90s recording of a Beethoven middle period quartet, "The Harp" (Op 74)," though the Quartet has recently re-recorded the middle period quartets. On Beethoven: The "Late" Quartets, certain effects—or "hooks"—that the composer wrote in the first movement are clear and highlighted, not smoothly subsumed in the mass of the movement, as usually happens with more sedate quartet groups. It may be that the Tokyo Quartet has an ability to speak to those who also listen to popular music—as well as, of course, to the hardened classical fan.

Beethoven: The "Late" Quartets is highly recommended for those looking to investigate these important pieces.

Track Listing: Opus 127; Opus 130; Opus 131; Opus 132; Opus 133; Opus 135.

Personnel: Martin Beaver: first violin; Kikuei Ikeda: second violin; Kazuhide Isomura: viola Clive Greensmith: cello.

Title: Beethoven: The "Late" Quartets | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Harmonia Mundi


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