Tokyo String Quartet, City Of London Festival, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

One of the joys of the City of London Festival is the range of venues within the Square Mile. In particular the boutique spaces provided by the City Livery Companies.

Stationer's Hall is tucked behind the Old Bailey, and even though the latter is now encased in concrete, Stationer's Hall retains its elegant plasterwork. The venue offers only a couple of hundred seats - not exactly financially viable - but is a perfect size for a string quartet. And since this year's "theme" is "Trading Places: London-Tokyo" (so wise, as far as sponsorship goes, to feature a place rather than the anniversary of a dead composer!), it is of little surprise that the veteran Tokyo String Quartet should take pride of place.

This year's festival, far from delivering yet more Mozart and Shostakovich, has made Brahms something of a feature. In their mini-residency of four concerts, the Tokyos play Mozart and Brahms with a contemporary Japanese work in between. And in this, their third concert, Michio Mamiya's Third Quartet (1999) made a fine foil between the last quartets of Mozart and Brahms. Mamiya's rhythmic clarity and dissonance recalls Bartok, but its marvellous "sagging tuning" at the end was of our time.

Mozart's K590 features the cello, it is said, in recognition of the cello-playing prowess of the King of Prussia, and also strongly emphasises the viola. Though we have no idea how it might have sounded, it surely could have been no match for cellist Clive Greensmith and violist Kazuhide Isomura. This is Mozart the master, phrases of odd lengths, harmonies leading in very unexpected directions, pauses, hesitations, chirpings and bold colours.

If Isomura in the Mozart had on occasion sounded underpowered, in Brahms' Bb Op.67 "Agitato" third movement, there was no holding him back. This is one of the great moments in viola playing - and too bad the violist doesn't stand up! Like the Mozart, this is Brahms the absolute master, this quartet written in symphonic structures and textures, demanding the boldest and the subtlest of performance, which the Tokyo String Quartet offered in abundance.