4 fine musicians playing 4 Strads
By Ruth Bingham
Special to The Advertiser
Two famous quartets will be visiting Hawai'i this week: a quartet of world-renowned musicians performing on a quartet of equally renowned instruments.
The musicians are the Tokyo String Quartet, an almost legendary ensemble that has set the standard in chamber music for more than 40 years.
Starting tomorrow, they will be presenting a series of four concerts — one in Honolulu, one on Maui, and two on the Big Island.
The instruments are the "Paganini Strads" or "Paganini Quartet," a set once owned by Nicolo Paganini, the 19th-century virtuoso who revolutionized violin technique. The instruments were built by Antonio Stradivari in his Cremona, Italy, workshop between 1680 (the viola) and 1737 (the cello), the two violins having been built in 1727 and 1731.
Individually, the 650 or so Stradivarius instruments still in existence are worth millions of dollars, prized for their extraordinary quality of sound.
That sound has been attributed to everything from the wood to the craftsmanship, age or varnish.
All that is certain is that craftsmen today, assisted by an impressive battery of modern research techniques, cannot replicate it.
A complete set of Strads is priceless — as is the opportunity to hear them live.
According to cellist Clive Greensmith, the instruments have "a translucent clarity of sound and great brilliance, along with a rich patina and broad sounds ... They demand a certain kind of control from the performer, because they have such purity of sound. If there's something imperfect in my playing ... you'll hear it."
Because instruments must be played to stay in shape, the Paganini Strads are on permanent loan to the Tokyo quartet, with the stipulation that they must be played together.
That, Greensmith explains, produces "a unanimity of sound ... a kind of shared sonic beauty."
The Tokyo String Quartet and the Paganini Quartet have been partners only since 1995, each following a meandering path to that point.
The instruments became a set when Paganini bought them individually.
They were sold off individually at the end of the 19th century, only to be reassembled once again mid-20th century.
In 1995, the Nippon Music Foundation bought the set from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, and began searching for a performing ensemble .
The Tokyo String Quartet was formed in New York in 1969 but named for its origins: "All four of us were studying at the Toho School of Music in Tokyo," violist Isomura explained, "and it was our dream that some day we would form our own quartet, and play together for the rest of our lives."
After studying with Hideo Saito in Tokyo, the four moved to New York in the 1960s to study with Robert Mann at Juilliard, formed the quartet, and proceeded to take the chamber music world by storm, winning several international awards in 1970.
Japan's musical ambassadors to the world, the quartet acquired its first non-Japanese member in 1981.
"Until then, we had conducted all our business in Japanese," Isomura related. "And we had been used to reading each other's minds, rather than openly disagreeing with each other. In Japan, expressing open disagreement is unthinkable rudeness.
"But with a Western player, we had to switch to English, and that changed our whole chemistry. Now we could disagree and argue, which was quite comfortable for us to do in a foreign language."
These days, the quartet have become international ambassadors for classical chamber music: from Canada, violinist Martin Beaver, the newest member, having joined in 2002; from Japan, violinist Kikuei Ikeda, who joined in 1971, and violist Kazuhide Isomura, the only remaining founding member; and from Britain, cellist Greensmith, who joined in 1999.
In Honolulu, the Tokyo quartet will once again present a Bartok–Berg–Beet-hoven program: Bela Bartok's No. 1, Opus 7 (1908), a work that sits on the cusp between late Romantic and 20th-century styles, full of Tristan- esque harmonies, spirited counterpoint and borrowings from folk music; Alban Berg's Opus 3 (1910), a brief two-movement work, the last he composed under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg; and Beethoven's Opus 74 "Harp" quartet from 1809, so called because of its first-movement pizzicato effects.
Last year, the quartet celebrated its 40th anniversary.
This year, the quartet is wrapping up a three-year project to perform and record the complete set of Beethoven quartets on the Harmonia Mundi label.
Thus far, they have produced the early and middle period quartets to much acclaim, including an "Outstanding Recording" award from the International Record Review.
This spring, they will issue the late quartets.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had other information for ticket prices and the Honolulu Academy of Arts contact phone number.