Two groups of Japanese musicians have opened their Western counterparts’ eyes to new things about Western classical music: one is Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan, the other is the Tokyo String Quartet, whose recordings of the classical canon are surpassingly fine. And when you’re told before the first of the Tokyo’s two Wigmore concerts that two players are about to retire, you listen intently, because a 42-year run is coming to a close.
I once interviewed them, and what emerged was their serene adaptability to change. The original group met in Tokyo, but formally crystallised in New York where, after twelve all-Japanese years, they acquired their first Western member. Until that point they had conducted all their business in Japanese. And since, in Japanese culture, the expression of open disagreement is an unthinkable rudeness, they had to express their musical disagreements through silence. But when they switched to English, debate mysteriously became possible. Meanwhile they decided to accept the loan of a quartet of Strads which Paganini himself had originally put together. As violist Kazuhide Isomura, the one remaining member of the original quartet, put it, ‘we felt it was time to get a unified sound’.
That unified sound allowed them to delineate the contours of Schubert’s Quartettsatz, classical music’s most majestic broken column, with imperious authority. Staying on Olympus, they then gave us Beethoven’s A minor string quartet Opus 132 with a wonderful account of the rapt ‘song of thanksgiving from a convalescent to the Deity’ at its still centre. The initial Allegro had force and nobility, but there were moments in the concluding Allegro where the textures had a tempestuous muddiness. Was that intentional? The score would at times almost seem to invite it, but it didn’t chime with the ideal version I carry in my head.
The second concert began with a performance of Haydn’s late String Quartet Op 77 No 1 which was brilliantly idiomatic, and flawless from start to finish; following that with Debussy’s G minor quartet, they took us into a dramatically different sound-world. Bidding us farewell with Brahms’s Piano Quintet Op 34 – beefed up by pianist Andreas Haefliger’s dark and brooding tone - they went out in a blaze of magnificence. Radio 3 will broadcast the first of these concerts on April 16 at 1.00pm.