By now everybody knows that the renowned Tokyo String Quartet will retire at the end of the 2012-13 season. The quartet was founded in 1969 at the Juilliard School of music by graduates of the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, where the founding members had studied with Professor Hideo Saito, who left a profound mark on their approach to music. They came to New York for further study with members of the Juilliard String Quartet. Since then, as one of the first Asian performing groups to acquire an international reputation, they have not only set the example for Japanese musicians in the world at large, they have set an international standard for chamber music playing and the string quartet in particular. The extraordinary efflorescence of string quartets today doubtless owes much to their example. Their playing has been distinguished by its beauty of tone, accuracy of intonation, and precision of ensemble, but, for all this perfection, they never fail to project a fully thought-out and felt conception of the composer’s intentions and the inner content of the music. Their playing is never dry, detached, or emptily virtuosic, and I have never left one of their performances feeling they had failed to go the limit with the music at hand.
The Emerson Quartet has become our honored eminence grise of chamber ensembles—they have recorded much of the literature (excluding critical 20th-century repertory by Schoenberg and Carter but including the complete Shostakovich) in performances that are regarded as definitive. Their concerts have taken on the aura that I recall experiencing a generation or two ago with the Budapest and then the Guarneri Quartets. The high-mindedness of the string quartet genre performed by the ensemble known to be the best there is induces in audiences a state of meditative reverence that is sustained by beautifully polished, superbly controlled performances. There is even a moral component involved: rather than relegate one performer to a subordinate role (that of second violinists Alexander Schneider or John Dalley) the Emersons are egalitarian: Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker share first and second violin duties. Their textural preferences are for rich, even-voiced sound that easily allows the viola and cello to speak through, and the balances are almost perfectly calibrated to display the endless resourcefulness of the composers.
Another most impressive discovery of Christian Steiner’s, pianist Gleb Ivanov, a twenty-eight-year-old M.A. from the Manhattan School of Music, played a stirring program of Haydn, Chopin, and Prokofiev at a private benefit concert for Mr. Steiner’s Tannery Pond Concerts. Here was a pianist of impeccable—really formidable—technique, powerful intelligence, and marked individuality, playing with a concentration that made the audience hang on every note, putting across his point of view with full conviction. And this point of view was most definitely worth hearing—and that is an understatement. Any musician who can play with such polish, grandeur, and intelligence has my deep respect.
Boston is full of excellent musicians who give concerts in various configurations of established chamber music groups, early and new music groups, and orchestras of various kinds other than the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and of course in solo recital. For musical performance and presentation of a great range of music, we are blessed in Boston. In early October I attended my first concert by the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, playing at the Goethe Institute on Beacon Street, where the large high-ceilinged double parlor makes a great venue for music, with a rich, resonant, vivid sound right to the back, though with small chairs all on one level and on this occasion a packed house, it was hard to see.
A weekend’s concert-going, in which this splendid performance of Haydn’s choral masterpiece was followed by one of Leon Botstein’s “Classics Declassified” concerts on Beethoven’s First Symphony, created a mini-festival devoted to the fecund influence of Gottfried, the Baron van Swieten, with Johann Peter Salomon, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in enthusiastic, if occasionally fractious attendance at both, reminding us at how closely linked London anf Vienna, the two great musical centers of the 1790’s, actually were.
Unmixed blessings. If I’ve given the pinched impression this summer that the Proms don’t deliver completely satisfying concerts, last night’s was the exception that proves the rule. I had wondered about the raves that Osmo Vänskä receives with his remote-north Minneapolis Symphony, a location as chilly as his native Finland. On records you can’t always judge the mettle of a conductor, and I discovered how far short my estimate of Vänskä was. Let’s bring him south more often. He’s a pleasure to watch, always alert, dropping his baton when he wants to mold the air expressively with both hands, and gifted with the kind of beat that draws real performances from hard-working musicians (a refreshing change from Daniel Barenboim’s show-offy impersonation two nights ago of a great maestro hypnotizing the masses). No musicians are harder working than the BBC Symphony, and as a result they can seem faceless, capable of proficiency but not inspiration. Or so they’ve sounded for most of the summer.
Aston Magna, one of the oldest and most distinguished early and baroque music festivals in North America, opened with a magnificent concert featuring the great Dominique Labelle. It was also a significant celebration of the Haydn bicentenary, with one of the great Opus 20 quartets, his important secular cantata, Arianna a Naxos, and some wise words from Artistic Director Daniel Stepner on how to listen to Haydn.
Outstanding vocal performances, many of them by mezzo-sopranos, have been among the defining features of this summer’s musical life. Anne Sofie von Otter finally reached her true potential as Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens. The great Anna Caterina Antonacci thrilled us as Cassandra in the same opera, and a newcomer, Kate Lindsey, excelled in the small part of Ascane, going on to greater things (with the splendid baritione, Thomas Meglioranza) in John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5 and, magnificently, in Elliott Carter’s In the Distances of Sleep. Sopranos Lucy Shelton, Iwona Hossa, and, of course, Renée Fleming were equally unforgettable. But one of the most remarkable and fascinating of these took place last Saturday evening at Tannery Pond, when Vivica Genaux, accompanied by Craig Rutenberg, performed an unusual program of works little-known in the classical mainstream.