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Monday, October 31, 2011
A Conversation With The Tokyo String Quartet

imageFollowing its acclaimed three-season Beethoven cycle of string quartets and piano sonatas, the Tokyo String Quartet now begins an exploration of the great modern innovator of the string quartet, Belá Bartók, with a two-season cycle of his quartets. The cycle starts this season on November 5 and continues March 17 and April 28. Purchase a series subscription here. Here the Quartet members discuss their cycle programming and performing at 92Y as its string quartet-in-residence.

You are performing this cycle following your tremendously successful Beethoven cycle. Do you see a relationship between Beethoven and Bartók?

Clive Greensmith, cello: Theirs were certainly two of the most influential, profoundly individual voices to have left their mark on the string quartet genre. Both composers remained committed to the art form throughout their creative lives, and their fascination for the medium seemed to help forge their own distinctly personal styles. Both were consummate craftsmen and musical pioneers, and they found in the string quartet an ideal expressive outlet for some of their most personal works.

In Bartók, there is often an overwhelming sense of strangeness. The uncompromising demands he places on both player and listener seem to create a tremendous inner tension. Even today, his “sound world”—eccentric, richly colored and bursting with creative force—demonstrates that this music has lost none of its passion or power. We would certainly have no trouble ascribing the exact same sentiments to the quartets of Beethoven!

What in particular was Bartók’s impact on the string quartet as a musical form?

Greensmith: With this ambitious and outstanding body of six quartets, Bartók breathed new life into the art form and paved the way for future generations of composers. He massively expanded the expressive range of the string quartet with a multitude of different types of highly contrasting materials: his control of architectural form, his mastery of language and his daringly imaginative exploration of different sounds and textures.

You did not perform the Beethoven quartets in a purely chronological order, but you are with your Bartók cycle. Why?

Martin Beaver, violin: In programming the Beethoven cycle over three years, we were careful in pairing the quartets with piano sonatas and in some cases with each other. In the first year, for example, we played all six Op. 18 quartets, but in order to present balanced programs with musical continuity, we felt it was inevitable that we change the order of the quartets. In the second year, we did manage to keep the chronological order of the Op. 59 quartets over three programs, albeit with the “Harp” (Op. 74) and “Serioso” (Op. 95) included! In the third year, we were unanimous in our desire to end the cycle with Op. 131, arguably the most profound and complex of Beethoven’s late quartets.

Since there are six Bartók quartets, it seemed natural to feature one of them on each of our three-concert 92Y series over the next two seasons. It seemed equally natural to program them in chronological order to appreciate each work’s unique style and character in the order in which they were written. One can definitely hear Bartók’s increasing ease and skill in the string quartet idiom over the course of the six quartets.

In each concert, you are pairing a Bartók quartet with a Haydn quartet. What is the connection there?

Beaver: We strongly feel that Haydn, like Bartók, was one of the most important (if not THE most important) figures in the development of the string quartet. In order to recognize the similarities of their pioneering spirits, we chose to feature Haydn in our cycle and selected specific quartets, also in somewhat of a chronological order, that would complement the Bartók quartet on each program. Over the next two seasons, we are striving to chart the musical paths of two great masters who contributed immeasurably to the development of the string quartet form.

The third works on your programs this season are by Schumann, Debussy and Dvořák. How did you decide on those works?

Kikuei Ikeda, violin: The reasons we had for combining these pieces with the three Bartók quartets are very different in each case. To begin, Bartók’s Quartet No. 1 was at least partly inspired by his love for Stefi Geyer, the violinist to whom Bartók dedicated his First Violin Concerto. In his Quartet No. 3, Schumann frequently uses the falling perfect fifth interval, signifying “Cla-ra,” the name of his wife, Clara Schumann, one of the great pianists of the time. So the reason for November 5 is “love and lovers.”

Bartók admired Debussy very much. There is a story that he wanted to meet Debussy despite his friend’s advice that Debussy would be rude to him. “Do you want to be insulted by Debussy?” the friend asked. “Yes,” replied Bartók. Bartók was especially interested in Debussy’s use of Oriental influences, particularly Javanese gamelan music. That influence is heard in his Second String Quartet, so the reason for March 17 is “influence.”

Dvořák’s String Quartet in G major, Op. 106, was written in 1895, only 31 years ahead of Bartók’s Quartet No. 3, yet the difference between the two works cannot be greater. Tonally, Dvořák is comfortable and inviting, while Bartók is challenging and adventurous. Bartók is slim and compact, only 16 minutes long, while Dvořák takes a generous 35 minutes. Yet these two composers shared one vitally important trait: they were fascinated with native folk music. They promoted it and used it in their music. Another interesting similarity: they both lived in America for a time. So our reason for April 28 is “contrast and similarity.”

You have been 92Y’s string quartet-in-residence since the 2003/04 season. What do you enjoy about performing at 92Y?

Kazuhide Isomura, viola: The Kaufmann Concert Hall at 92nd Street Y has wonderful acoustics and a great atmosphere for string quartet concerts. The audience members there are genuine music lovers who are there to listen. Director of Concert and Literary Programming Hanna Arie-Gaifman has been a very close collaborator of ours. Her creative mind and strong enthusiasm for music has helped us to create programs that we believe are both substantive and enjoyable for our audience.

The Tokyo String Quartet now begins an exploration of the great modern innovator of the string quartet, Belá Bartók, with a two-season cycle of his quartets. The cycle starts this season on November 5, and continues March 17 and April 28. Purchase a series subscription here.

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