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Last season, when the Tokyo String Quartet performed in Raleigh, we had problems with their reserved and overly controlled playing. This visit, performing under the auspices of the Chamber Arts Society in Reynolds Auditorium of Duke University, we found the cohesion and precision for which they have been famous generally back on track but learned sadly that the first violinist, Mikhail Kopelman, was leaving the end of this season. Back to square one.
The all-Brahms program featuring the Quartet in a minor, Op.51 No.2 and the Clarinet Quintet b minor, Op.115 was sufficiently heavy and long to warrant a two-work program. The Quartet in a minor is one of those works Brahms started as a young man of around 20 and did not consider finished and ready for publication until 20 years later. Over the years it became more complex and polyphonic, paying homage to Brahms's idol, J.S. Bach. Its opening movement has some of the elegiac qualities of the later Brahms, while the czardas of the finale harks back to the young composer. The Tokyo String Quartet performance, although meticulously precise, showed some conflict between the looser and more emotional playing of the first violinist and the more reserved approach of the other three - second violinist Kazuhide Isomura, violist Kikuei Ikeda and cellist Clive Greensmith.
No such problem appeared in the Clarinet Quintet. Joined by clarinetist David Krakauer, the Tokyo put in an exceptional performance, both technically and musically. Krakauer, who currently teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College, is equally at home in classical, klezmer music and jazz, and it shows. His playing is loose and fluid, the phrases simply pouring out of him smoothly and effortlessly. Not all fluidity is necessarily good; Krakauer struggled with water in one of the tone holes during both the first and second movements, but it did not dampen his playing. The strings, wisely, followed his lead to make this one of the most satisfying performances of this work we have ever heard.
Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Tokyo will be back next year.