Musical chairs: The Tokyo String Quartet

It's the least forgiving of ensembles, with an ever-changing dynamic. In town for the City of London Festival, the Tokyo String Quartet tell Michael Church about life in a foursome
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The Independent Culture

The Wigmore is set for action, and four gentlemen are tuning up centre-stage. Well, that's how it looks to me, but they're not satisfied: they shift their chairs half an inch to the left, to find the dead centre of the space. "This is one of those halls where the acoustic becomes a fifth instrument," says the first violinist, appreciatively. The violist makes silent bow-strokes in the air, the cellist generates low growls, the violinists chase off down separate musical paths: a sweet cacophony, each in his private world.

Then suddenly - magically - they are perfectly together in the middle of a Mozart fast movement. Meet the Tokyo String Quartet - a Canadian, a Brit, and two Japanese - limbering up before the public arrive.

A string quartet by Mozart or Beethoven is a distilled symphony: the musical lines are sharpened and the feeling refined - chamber players are the aristocrats of the classical world. And string quartets can save souls. They flourished in the Nazi concentration camps of Buchenwald and Terezin, where Viktor Ullmann had his last quartet performed: chamber music defiant in the mouth of the gas chambers.

The four-way relationship of a permanent quartet can be no less remarkable. Three members of the Amadeus Quartet were Austrian Jews who first made music together in a wartime internment camp; with a British Jewish colleague, they launched themselves at Dartington, and went on to dominate British chamber music for four decades.

The US-based Budapest Quartet - chamber music's original superstars - notched up 50 unbroken years, though that did mean going through six second violinists (and one suicide) in the process. Their music reflected an exemplary union, yet their behaviour was anarchic, as a New Yorker critic noted during a rehearsal: "Sasha leapt from his chair and, with violin held aloft, played the passage with exaggerated schmaltz, like a street fiddler in Naples... Kroyt stopped playing and started singing a Russian song... Mischa Schneider thereupon performed a number of stupendous triads on his cello... Only Roisman went quietly on with his part, untouched by the pandemonium around him."

These men were also bridge fanatics - once walking off the stage mid-concert to continue a game that their performance had annoyingly interrupted - and they were jokers: regularly trying to destabilise each other in performance, by planting pornographic pictures inside innocent-seeming scores.

As Mischa Schneider observed, "It's much easier to be married to one person than to be married to a string quartet", and this seems to be a universal truth. When the Amadeus's violist Peter Schidlof died, the surviving players were plunged into the deepest mourning, before resurfacing as the Amadeus Trio. And in this sort of marriage, divorce can be as painful as bereavement. Researching a profile of the award-winning Takacs Quartet, I realised in the course of my quadruple interview that a fifth interview was required, since the man who had given the quartet his name - Gabor Takacs-Nagy - was no longer a member. "There were difficulties: he had a hand problem," I was informed, cagily.

When I tracked down Takacs-Nagy, his first anxious question was, "What did the others say?". He then took a deep breath and launched into a tale that laid bare the tensions that can so often tear chamber groups apart. He did indeed have a hand problem, but the underlying problem was emotional: the stress of leaving his native Hungary and settling in America precipitated a breakdown, in both his playing and his life, causing him, in 1993, to leave the quartet that he had founded

He told me that although he now had a thriving career with his own trio, he still dreamed about his former colleagues, and could not bear to hear them play. "If you divorce, and somebody tells you that the new husband or wife is fantastic, it feels odd," he said, with touching understatement.

Now in its 37th year, but with only one of its original members, the Tokyo String Quartet seems blissfully free of such tensions. Violist Kazuhide Isomura, who is that original member, recalls the impulse that got it started: "All four of us were studying at the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, and it was our dream that some day we would form our own quartet, and play together for the rest of our lives." He had been taught to play by the Suzuki method, then popular in Japan: in musical terms he was already Westernised, as was the violinist Kikuei Ikeda, who joined the group three years later. The quartet crystallised as a reality while they were studying at the Juilliard school in New York in the Sixties: Japanese classical musicians were a novelty in the West, and by naming themselves after their capital city, they became musical ambassadors for their hastily modernising country.

And in this quartet's case, the two-culture question worked out interestingly when, after 12 all-Japanese years, they acquired their first Western member. "Until then, we had conducted all our business in Japanese," says Kazuhide. "And we had been used to reading each other's minds, rather than openly disagreeing with each other - in Japan, expressing open disagreement is unthinkable rudeness. The only way to express disagreement was through silence. But with a Western player, we had to switch to English, and that changed our whole chemistry. Now we could disagree and argue - which was quite comfortable for us to do in a foreign language."

This language change led to a complete change of thinking, he says, and therefore to a change in the way they practised: "It was a good change. As a result, our playing became more free. Now, everybody has his own personality - and keeps it." In response to the inevitable question, "How Japanese are you now?", Kazuhide points to the fact that in their forthcoming City of London Festival season, they will interlard works by Mozart and Brahms with contemporary Japanese works that they have commissioned. Their mastery may be supranational, but their spirit still resides in Japan.

Meanwhile, the instruments they play are a story in themselves. These are a group of Strads known as the "Paganini Quartet", which were put together by that greatest of all violinists. Early in the 20th century, they were sold off separately, were subsequently reunited, and are now owned by the Nippon Foundation, which loans them to this quartet. "We initially turned down Nippon's offer," says Kazuhide, "as we already had Strads and a Guadagnini, but when we had another member change, we felt it was time to get a unified sound." And in some mysterious way, these instruments, a family in themselves, have helped to realise that goal.

In the early 20th century, it was standard quartet practice for the first violinist to dominate - the leader of the Hungarian Quartet used to describe his fellow-players as "staff". Democracy is now the generally accepted approach, though it's more often honoured in the breach than in the observance. But to watch the Tokyo String Quartet rehearse is to experience it in its purest form. Each player takes it in turn to suggest changes in approach - in tempo, colour, or emphasis - and each is deferred to, even if the criticism is sharp, with relaxed decorum. And this finest of fine-tuning, as the subsequent performance shows, bears wonderful fruit.

The Tokyo String Quartet's sequence of concerts at the City of London Festival begins tonight, Middle Temple Hall, London EC4 (0845 120 7502; www.colf.org)

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