This was both an important and a moving occasion, for this was the final concert on the Tokyo String Quartet's international farewell tour. Those who have experienced this fabled quartet on their three previous visits would have been deeply affected, and had occasion to reflect on the astonishing consistency of an ensemble that has, over its 40-plus years life, had five leaders – though only two second violins and cellists, and the original violist Kazuhide Isomura have stayed the distance.
The sound is, and always has been, both distinctive and intensely personal. Since 1996 they have played on a group of Stradivarius instruments once owned by Paganini and the rich, smooth sonority, the extraordinary blend of the sound, inflects every work they play. Mozart's String Quartet in D K499 'Hoffmeister' had an uncommon, almost private, intimacy to it – ravishing to the ear. The six Bartok String Quartets have always been core to the Tokyo String Quartet, and the valedictory nature of the Sixth Quartet made it particularly apt on this final tour. I have heard more abrasive performances than this, but none with as much understanding and sympathy.
Much the same could be said of the playing of Brahms' String Quartet in C minor Op 51 No 1. This is a dark, somewhat unsettled, work but, again, the Tokyo players underplayed the moodiness and gave us, instead, a richly homogenous understanding that somehow didn't sell Brahms short at all.
The standing ovations that greeted the players were rewarded by the final moments we will hear from these great musicians, the menuet from Haydn's String Quartet Op 77 No 1; beautifully played and a wonderful sound with which to take departure from the quartet.