BEETHOVEN: String Quartets No 10, Op. 74, “Harp”; No. 11, Op. 95, “Serioso” – Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807460, 52:33 ****:
The Tokyo String Quartet has been halfway reconstituted, so any attempt at comparing these readings with the group’s previous desert island readings on RCA Red Seal is not entirely fair. That ensemble recorded what many today regard as the greatest set of Beethoven Quartets ever put to disc, so they are now competing against themselves, and if the history of recording shows anything, this is nearly always a failing proposition (with some exceptions). The current flavor of the Tokyo is not as the former—that foursome had a soberly fine and superbly honed tone quality that was as silken as the word would allow definition; such a quality allowed them to stretch slow movements more than you might think possible, using the beauty of sound to substitute for a sometimes overwrought formal concept, a neat trick indeed. And it allowed Beethoven to be played with such loveliness and finesse that other quartets often came across as downright harsh. Take a hearing at the Juilliard Quartet’s early Columbia readings as an example (now fairly cheap on Sony); I grew up on those and still adore them as they introduced me to these pieces, but no one in their right minds could possibly compare them to the luxuriant sound of Tokyo 1 (formed, incidentally, at Juilliard in 1969).
So this is a new bunch with a new approach, and to their credit they don’t seem to try and outdo the previous incarnation. This quartet is leaner, more well-balanced in a way, and definitely not as colorful. Don’t take this last as a necessary criticism—some quartets are too individualistic in color and come away as wildly disparate in certain pieces, especially of the Classical period. While they don’t project the opening bars of the “Harp” Quartet with the same sense of unbridled songfulness as the Cleveland on Telarc, they do find the lyricism throughout the piece, perhaps Beethoven’s most explicitly melodic. The “Serioso” (so named because this is what the composer put at the top of the score), provides quite a contrast being written right after the “Harp”. This powder keg of a work provides searing contrast to what has gone on before, one year apart in date of composition even though 20 opus numbers separate them. Here the Tokyo finds their mettle completely, providing as dramatic a reading as they ever did before, and certainly one to equal most on the market. The Tokyo always was one for dramatic sensibilities, and I guess some things have not changed.
I don’t like 52 minute discs, but these middle quartets have always caused siding difficulties, so I suppose some things have to be lived with. This is the first of this series that I have explored in SACD sound, and the results are very pleasing. Will this top the Cleveland, Vegh, or Takacs Quartets? Maybe not, but it does equal them in many respects, and the sound is better. Newcomers, fear not, collectors will incur no harm, if perhaps some needless duplication.
— Steven Ritter