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An Empyrean Quintet

Orange County
Irvine Barclay Theatre
01/24/2006 -  
Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74,
No. 3 “The Rider”

Antonin Dvorák: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581
“Stadler’s Quintet”

Tokyo String Quartet: Martin Beaver (violin), Kikuei Ikeda (violin), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Clive Greensmith (cello) --Sabine Meyer (clarinet)

At the Irvine Barclay Theater last Tuesday night, the Tokyo String Quartet and the great German clarinetist Sabine Meyer were almost blinding in their brilliance. If there was any fault in their performance, it was that of being too perfect- always Raphael on Mt. Parnassus, even when you might want a little Caravaggio in a Roman brothel. In a recent Sunday New York Times article (January 15, 2006), Alan Kozinn described Los Angeles as the new symphonic capital of the United States; the chamber music scene here in Southern California is often equally impressive. One of the most notable chamber venues is the Irvine Barclay Theatre, with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County as presenter. This season includes the Takacs Quartet, the pianist Krystian Zimmerman, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Leon Fleisher, a small constellation of world-class stars. At only 586 seats, with 170 in the balcony, the theater is blessedly intimate, a fraction of the size of Disney Hall or Royce Hall at UCLA. As architecture, the structure is corporate, undistinguished. But the interior form and surfaces are simple and well designed, providing a warm, balanced acoustic that tempers the closeness of the space.

Haydn’s Op. 74 Quartet, No. 3, “The Rider” was the ideal opening for this concert. All performances should begin so impeccably. The first movement was bright, pure, full of energy but perfectly balanced- infinitely classical and marvelously accessible. After the freeway and parking, this was music to smooth out and sharpen the frame of mind, delightful, approachable, but full of depth. The second movement, largo assai, was darker, more deeply sonorous but still perfectly measured. The minuet of the third movement was dancing, absolutely expressing its form. The taut, refined Tokyo Quartet style is ideal for this music. The finale: Allegro con brio – ah… to live in the universe of Haydn! – A flawless world flawlessly rendered… ecstatic speed, exquisite hesitation. While always in utter control, the ensemble was aggressive; the musical attacks were of one restrained, ferocious mind. Faster and faster, tension… motion… tension, fury, chase, dance, chase, dance, chase… Haydn’s quartet “The Rider” was well named for this performance.

The Tokyo Quartet’s rendering of Dvorak’s warhorse “American” Quartet was also remarkable. The opening clarion calls on the first violin and the viola brought forth some of the richest and most sonorous string tone I have experienced. The Tokyo Quartet reached down into the tragedy beneath Dvorak’s deeply graven lines. It was not that there were any new discoveries in a piece that is so familiar, but that the artist’s revealed more depth than was expected. The ensemble was elastic, as each player momentarily became a soloist, crying out with a dark, folkloric passion. As the melody passed from one instrument to another, so did the leadership of the quartet. Even the “Hoe-down” dance music in the fourth movement was both light and deep at the same time. The rapt audience burst into applause. The performance left me sated, even meditative.

Sabine Meyer, one of the world’s most renowned clarinet players, joined the Tokyo Quartet for the evening’s climax, Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Quintet. The group is performing the piece throughout their American tour, so the elegance and extreme polish of their interpretation was no surprise. Although they played as flawlessly as an excellent recording, Sabine Meyer often dominated, as if the piece were more of a concerto than a quintet. Even so, there was such ease and delight, such dexterity, that the performance seemed empyrean, the Platonic ideal of Mozart chamber music. Sabine Meyer’s voice-like dexterity with her instrument recalled Frederica Von Stade as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro. The Greek gods of order and music, Apollo and Orpheus would envy their virtuosity. But with this transcendent ensemble playing Mozart, there was no sacrifice to Dionysus, the ecstatic god of wine and intoxication. This combination of repertoire and musicianship gave rise to absolute form and symmetry, perfection, order, and restraint. It would have been even more exciting if they had chosen to play the darker and more passionate Brahms Clarinet Quintet alongside the Mozart.

After a standing ovation, the group returned to play an encore from the Carl Maria Von Weber Clarinet Quintet, overflowing with humor and bel canto-like trills and warbles on Sabine Meyer’s sublime clarinet. Amidst the final applause, a woman in the audience exclaimed, “She had to have the last word!”

Thomas Aujero Small



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