Tokyo Quartet struggles with nuances of Brahms

By Christian Kraus

What is it that makes music connoisseurs admire Brahms so much? Why do we find his music so beautiful? How can we try to understand his music? There is good reason to pose these questions, for unlike the music of other classical composers, that of Brahms is not only often difficult to access, but its origin and genesis remain enigmatic. In Mozart, for example, we hear the playful childishness that we have come to know from his letters as they meet a tone of grief and distress. In Schubert, we hear the outcries of a disturbed human being, bursts of terror and panic previously unheard-of in the history of music. We tend to explain: wasn’t Schubert depressed and, for that matter, a syphilitic? And then Beethoven. In his works, we hear not only the essential driving energy of his unique genius; as if that were not enough, politico-philosophical ideas of all sorts are thrown in ad libitum, as we try to figure just where exactly his music comes from and what makes it continue after the first note.

In short, we resort to biographical details and philosophical concepts to explain why composers compose the way they do and to make sense of this dissonance here and that lovely little melody there. But all these models ultimately explain nothing. When it comes down to it, music has no extramusical content. It always refers back to itself, be it within the structure of a single work, or within a historical or technical context. There is nothing else to be seized upon. Music arises out of silence only to recede into its own mysterious realm shortly thereafter, constantly eluding any satisfying philosophical explanations for its existence. It leaves us alone with ourselves, enlightened, amazed, and perhaps slightly transformed. Music is this singular phenomenon that, when performed, technically does nothing but make sound waves oscillate, but in doing so can provide us with so much solace and comfort, inspiration and will, energy and drive: music remains the great mystery of human life. Perhaps it is the only way of experiencing transcendence besides religion. And while religious belief may well be a delusion of the mind — as an individual, not a social, phenomenon, that is — music certainly isn’t. It is very much real, and all the more so in the terrific University of Chicago Presents: Chamber Music series that brings some of the world’s greatest artists to campus year in and year out.

The music of Brahms alerts us to those issues, since it eludes simplistic explanations. Very much like with Bach, the life of Brahms is well-researched, his supposed personality thoroughly analyzed. We know about his lifelong, unrequited passion for Clara Schumann, just as we are informed about Bach’s double-digit offspring and his irksome hassles with the Leipzig town council. But in Bach, the impersonal, but so soothing purity will often make us want to draw a direct spiritual link between the music and God in Heaven, leaving the personality of the Thomaskantor as a blank spot not subject to consideration. On the other hand, Brahms the man eludes our grasp because of his quickly changing moods and sonorities. At times, he will give us deeply personal moments. This is how we have gotten to know the “angry” young, and the “autumnal” late, Brahms. Then again, he has gorgeous passages that remind us very much of Bach in that they are full of emotion yet strangely devoid of subjectivity. As Adorno put it: “In Brahms, the attempt at objectifying music not by transplanting categories external to it, but by means of its own structure and the density of its form is advanced furthest.” It is the protean wealth of Brahms’ music that makes us ask questions about music and art in general. If listening to Brahms, then, is fulfilling and confounding at the same time, so was, in many ways, Friday’s performance by the Tokyo String Quartet.

The Tokyo has been one of the world’s finest string ensembles for decades, and they brought to Chicago an all-Brahms program, comprising the first String Quartet op. 51/1 as well as the two String Quintets op. 88 and op. 111, performed in collaboration with violist Phillip Ying of the Ying Quartet. This music will be their nourishment for time to come, as they have decided to rely almost exclusively on Brahms as the new season takes them across the globe. The music of Brahms is, of course, at the center of every string quartet’s repertoire. And sure enough, the Tokyo has been playing it for a lifetime. But the fact that Brahms constantly demands new interpretive approaches might explain why the Tokyo still seemed to be very much experimenting at this early stage of the concert year.

If there was an overarching conception to their interpretations, it was the attempt to make understandable the birth of music out of the spirit of silence. The opening lines of op. 51/1 were articulated with great carefulness, its first theme arising out of the inaudible depths of nothingness much like the Rhein motif in the opening bars of Wagner’s Ring. Theirs was a hermetic approach to Brahms, which treated the driving energy of this dense piece not as apriori, but as contained within the music. Rather than presupposing the driving force as existing prior to, and outside of the music, they showed how Brahms’ compositional stance of developing variation agglomerates it in and out of itself. Under this impression, one was pointed to the opening of the second String Quintet, the first movement of which “explodes into existence” (Michael Kannen in his excellent program notes) in medias res with joyful and vibrant tremolos. It breaks the silence in a way that may be as subtle as a smack in the face, but becomes therefore all the more mysterious.

The Tokyo kept coming back to this conception. They proved experts at leading the listener through the shifts of motion and emotion. If music professor Larry Zbikowski argued, in his enlightening introductory lecture, that it is the motives, the little fragments of music, that hold its structure together and guide it through changes in mode, dynamic, texture, and mood, the Tokyo chose a well-conceived contrapuntal approach to achieve structural cohesion. Again, the first movement of op. 51/1 will provide a proper example. In the third thematic part of the exposition (around bar 63), they double-layered the music, paying equal attention to the contemplative dolce theme of the first violin as well as to the pulsating ternary rhythm in the second violin and cello that refers back to the preceding transitional passage. Rather than staging a uniform break in mood, they allowed the musical pulse to settle down, giving it time to cool off. The result was revelatory. In understanding that the Brahmsian counterpoint is not merely one of melody — as is the nature of Bach’s polyphony — but possibly one of mood and temper, the Tokyo exposed their profound grasp of the internal logic of the piece. In their hands, the notes were not simply treated as given; rather, an entire musical narrative was reconstructed in front of an astounded audience.

Their conception worked less successfully with the first quintet. Here, again, they played the opening bars with deliberation, letting the melody develop and burgeon with tender and care. But this is a different kind of work. It is more thematically loose and relaxed than the quartet. It does not have the same kind of essential driving force; instead of densely deriving everything from a few motivic cells, Brahms here relies on the diversity of the material and a Mozartian richness of melodic inspiration. The Tokyo seemed unprepared for this, as their performance never got off to a real start. Their interpretation had none of the brio that Brahms asked for in the tempo indication of the first movement. The second theme was dragging along, wonderful and lovely, yes, but without much sense of going forward. For once, they seemed to be indulging in the sheer beauty moment, but they forgot their sense of the whole in the process. The structure fell apart.

If the first half of the concert was uneven, so was the playing technique of the Tokyo String Quartet, and to an extreme degree. Part of the delight in listening to them is simply hearing them play the legendary “Paganini Quartet,” four invaluable Stradivarius instruments on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. Thus, it was all the more shocking to see them have a bad day, a very bad day, if only in matters of playing skills. Or how else can it be explained that first violinist Mikhail Kopelman was struggling with every single virtuosic passage, his intonation queer throughout, that at times he was on the verge of losing tempo and control altogether? Whenever he had to play in thirds of sixths with the second violin or the viola, nothing sounded right. Slight, but uncomfortable dissonances filled the hall much too often. Perfectionists had to be terribly disappointed, but the more important point is that musical cohesion was jeopardized at lots of moments. As one result, none of the last movements was consistently enjoyable. Instead of being carried away by the music, one had to be fearfully watching the motions of the quartet members.

Thus, the quiet moments were the most enchanting of the night. Here, the Tokyo’s refined musicianship as well as the superior quality of their instruments paid off. The outcome: ravishing pianissimos, subtly tuned nuances, moments of otherworldly beauty that made the audience let off coughing and opening candy for an instant.

Necessarily, a slow movement became the highlight of the show. When they began the second movement of the second String Quintet, I first thought that they were taking it too fast, as an andante, not an adagio, as Brahms marked it. And perhaps they were: the pale, bleak character of the music could not entirely unfold at this measured pace. But their performance was extremely concentrated, and when after all the hopelessness Brahms breaks in with an extended passage of wild terror, the Tokyo were at their very best as they modeled an unforgettable minute of genuine Schubertian hysteria. How can music continue after such a moment? The Tokyo explained it mesmerizingly. The third movement, marked un poco allegretto, opens flimsily. The music appears insecure and shaky. It needs several attempts until it gets back into flow. The Tokyo here staged the rebirth of music after its cataclysm. Like a little child, so they demonstrated, music has to learn to walk again, careful small steps first, slowly becoming more confident. Music lovers will recall a quite similar moment in the andante of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony.

The Tokyo String Quartet performance was, then, a two-edged matter. It left me enlightened, yet partly disappointed. It had moments of heartbreaking beauty, yet I was heartbroken about their technical shortcomings. It made me think and it made me cringe. And it made me look forward to the next star ensemble, Germany’s Hagen Quartet. They will come to campus in a mere ten days, on Friday, October 26.