What can you say about a string quartet that has perfect intonation, balance, discipline and control and has become an icon in its field? As it turns out, quite a lot.

For its Sunday, Jan. 28 concert, the Tokyo String Quartet, an annual visitor to the Triangle, diverged from its usual offering of three complete quartets to perform a thematic program called Satz und Fuge. The Tokyo has always placed a premium on discipline and reserve; and, although there can never be too much of the former, there was a little too much of the latter. The Quartet, however, deserves kudos for creating this innovative program, as does the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild for selecting it over more conventional fare.

Everyone should be able to figure out what the Fuge means, but Satz is one of those words with multiple and sometimes elusive meanings. In this case, Satz stands for “movement,” as in a movement of a sonata or symphony. But it also implies the idea of a complete statement, a factor one tends to overlook when confronted with multi-movement compositions, and the Tokyo’s program concentrated on these smaller musical sub-units rather than on the larger form. Moreover, since Johann Sebastian Bach’s death in 1750, his fugal writing has remained the gold standard by which all later composers have measured their own contrapuntal skills. Four of the works on the program reflected Bach’s influence and spirit, and demonstrated both conservative and innovative approaches to fugal writing.

Among the featured works on the program were single movements, some of which were conceived as stand-alone pieces, while others were isolated movements that eventually might have been incorporated into longer works: the Quartetsatz D. 703 in D minor by Schubert; Langsamer Satz by Anton Webern; and four separate quartet movements by Mendelssohn, which are lumped into the single opus No. 81. The Mendelssohn movements have occasionally been presented as a unified work, but that is a misrepresentation; they were written at different times and the composer referred to them as “four quartet movements.” To emphasize their individuality, the Tokyo interspersed the other works between them. In the case of the Schubert and Mendelssohn movements, this concert was a rare opportunity to hear live pieces that normally reside as fillers on CDs. For many, the Webern was the surprise of the day, an early, emotionally self-indulgent and interminable romantic work–written before he got religion and became a pillar of serialism and musical conciseness.

While the program was conceived as a change from the usual Classical-contemporary-Romantic grouping so common for string quartet concerts, we felt logy by the end of the first half. Part of the problem was too much 19th-century lushness and the sameness in tempo and mood of the Sätze. The only real contrast was a contemporary work by György Kurtag, 12 Microludes, Op. 13, a series of movements, each only a few seconds long, focusing on specific string textures rather than on musical syntax.

The other source of fatigue arose from the performance itself–in this case, a kind of tight playing, especially in the first half, through the narrow dynamic range of soft to very, very, very soft. The Tokyo does it to perfection but with little fire or soul. You can compare their playing to Rafael’s paintings of exquisitely beautiful, but detached, Madonnas. We’re not complaining about poor playing or lack of musicality. This is a question of taste. The quartet has a distinct musical philosophy that has endured through many changes in personnel (and nationalities). This review is less a criticism than a way to help readers and listeners avoid falling into the trap of thinking that when they’ve heard one world-class string quartet (or conductor, or orchestra or dramatic soprano), they’ve heard them all.

During the second half of the program, which included Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546 and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the quartet loosened up a bit, especially in the Beethoven. The Grosse Fuge is a quirky work, fugal writing pushed to its limits. To make musical sense of it and prevent it from rambling requires the utmost discipline, the Tokyo’s strong point. And, of course, with Beethoven, you have to cut loose with dynamics.

Then came the encore, and the highlight of the performance, the second movement from Quartet No. 1 by Dmitry Shostakovich. This is one of his most moving utterances, and there was no emotional holding back. Would they please play the whole Quartet when they return to the area next year? EndBlock