Harmonia Mundi Multichannel SACD HMU 807423.24, (2 discs) 76:56; 31:18 ***:
The Tokyo String Quartet officially embarks on a new Beethoven cycle to celebrate the Tokyo’s most recent configuration, with Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violins; Kazuhide Isomura, viola; and Clive Greensmith, cello. Recorded April 26-29, 2005 at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California, the three Op. 59 quartets benefit from the Tokyo’s long experience. The performances balance a sense of intimacy with Beethoven’s often convulsive penchant for girth and expansiveness. The Op. 59 literally push the harmonic and structural envelope of the traditional string quartet medium, using combination sonata-rondo forms and deliberately mystifying the harmonic syntax with Neapolitan chords and the kinds of vertical ambiguity Schubert would find compelling for his own use.
The heroic, symphonic proportions of the Op. 59, No. 1 F Major parallel the “Eroica” Symphony for the use of harmonic tension and contrapuntal efforts towards a resolution. The Tokyo assumes a relatively restrained stance in the opening Allegro, opting for studied, deft interplay among the groups of instruments, especially in the double fugue wherein Beethoven explores and explodes all kinds of harmonic tensions related to the F-G-F sequence that recurs throughout statements of the main theme. And while I find the Scherzo rhythmic tatoo in the cello and its subsequent permutations an adumbration of Mahler’s metrical experiments, the eerie quality of the writing, often deconstructing the melody among the four instruments, is played down by the Tokyo players, imploding rather than exploding the drama. The agonized F Minor proves tragically meditative, leading to the Theme russe, the same melody Moussorgsky used for his opera Boris Gudonov. The movement’s jauntiness comes as something of an anticlimax after the bleak emotions of the Adagio molto e mesto, but who could sustain these passions without relief?
For my money, the Tokyo has been saving up their emotional ferocity for the E Minor Quartet, a piece which explores some very tight harmonic relationships, like the Neapolitan second compressed within a two-bar phrase. The tiny, incremental phrases, the creeping chromatic bass lines all contribute to a sense of compression which finds a foil in the remarkable Molto adagio, a stately hymn which yearns for infinite space. Listen for the chromatic peals in the Trio section of the Allegretto, the section Beethoven marks Maggiore, where a folkish Russian tune receive intense contrapuntal treatment for fifty measures. The ensuing Presto finale becomes wild and harmonically ambiguous, again undecided whether B or C is its key, perhaps reminiscent of Haydn’s blustery moods. The opening of Op. 59, No. 3 presents the kind of harmonic ambiguity we find again in the Ninth Symphony. The cello descends early, only to have the violin ascend at the movement’s conclusion. The violin rather dominates in concert ante fashion, some of the riffs reminiscent of the two Romances Beethoven had written earlier in his career. The weaving, throbbing theme of the Andante con moto has haunted my soul since Jean-Luc Godard used it for his film A Married Woman. The sheer, symphonic proportions of Beethoven’s hefty textures elicit many striking effects from the Tokyo Quatet, not the least of which occur in the Finale: Allegro molto, a volcanic eruption in music well met by the disciplined ferocity of the Tokyo ensemble. But why we cannot have the Harp Quartet, Op. 74 on the second disc is a mystery of marketing I am unable to solve.