The return of the Tokes 

One of chamber music’s most beloved ensembles, The Tokyo String Quartet, returns to San Francisco today.

Formed at the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1969, the Tokes remain based back East thanks to a 34-year residency at Yale.

Since they made landmark recordings of the complete Beethoven String Quartets two decades ago, the quartet’s first violin and cello have changed hands.

As Harmonia Mundi slowly releases new renditions of the Beethoven in far better sound, the Tokes bring the String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74 (“Harp”) to the lamentably dry acoustic of Herbst Theatre.

Sponsored by Chamber Music San Francisco, tonight’s program also includes Haydn’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”) and Mozart’s great Quartet in F Major, K. 590. All will come to life on four Stradivarius instruments assembled by Paganini.

Speaking from his home in Westchester County, cellist Clive Greensmith confessed to mixed feelings about Beethoven’s “Harp.” “It’s fabulous music,” he says, “with an astonishingly beautiful, slow movement, and a very interesting scherzo. But it’s also an assault course for the cello.”

Despite it being somewhat obligatory — the Tokes played it at their Town Hall debut in New York City in 1970 — Greensmith prefers the late Mozart quartet. It’s a matter of self-interest.

"It’s one of my favorites in the whole repertoire,” he says, “because the cello is fully liberated for the first time in quartet history. It’s also very unusual, full of asymmetrical phrases of unusual lengths. There are some incredible twists and turns in the second movement, with lots of dissonance and passages of extreme pathos. Someone once said that it’s perhaps the most thoughtful slow movement in the whole quartet repertoire. I love it, as much for its invention, imagination and experimentation as for its equal voicing.”

Having played the Mozart a number of times before giving it a rest for several years, Greensmith is delighted to find it as fresh as ever. He’s especially delighted by its funny seven bar opening that sounds a bit like yodeling, and the humor of its minuet and closing.

Given that 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, the quartet has recently performed Haydn cycles in Milan and

“For me as a quartet player,” says Greensmith, “Haydn’s Prussian quartets are among the most rewarding to play. He never outstays his welcome. Whatever drives his imagination and technique is flawless. With great themes, a heavenly slow movement and balance across the movements, the ‘Sunrise’ glows with the perfection of a lifetime.”


Tokyo String Quartet

Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. today
Tickets: $32 to $44
Contact: (415) 392-4400,

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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