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MUSIC REVIEW : Tokyo Quartet Plays Bartok, Brahms at Barclay : Difficult pieces are mastered with group’s authority and commitment; music is played with a sense of certainty and purpose.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bartok’s thorny Fourth Quartet still can drive at least one member of an audience out the door at the earliest opportunity, even when the work is played with the authority and commitment that the Tokyo String Quartet demonstrated Tuesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

One man fled Cheng Hall at the end of the first movement, murmuring darkly. But he returned after intermission, in time for Brahms’ Quartet No. 1, which closed the program co-presented by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and the Orange County Philharmonic Society. The evening began with Schubert’s Quartet No. 8.

During the Bartok, violinists Peter Oundjian and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Sadao Harada seemed unaware of the audience member’s defection and continued to interpret the difficult music with a sense of certainty and purpose.

They attacked the composer’s brusque and aggressive accents without sacrificing refinement of tone, and explored a range of colors and dynamics without losing delicacy and freshness. They addressed the multiple bowed and percussive challenges without abandoning wit, and even injected a sense of fun. In the glissandi passages, whether subtle or wild, they phrased with uncanny unanimity of pulse and shape.

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As it turned out, the Bartok proved the high point of the evening, and the audience (minus one, anyway) gave it respectful welcome. Pinning down the reasons for the letdowns elsewhere is problematic.

In Brahms’ Quartet, Oundjian played with noticeable fervor but also with definite limits as to how much zeal or romantic warmth or continuous personal expression was permissible. The other players apparently agreed, taking few opportunities to make strong, individual contributions.

As a result, the dramatic themes and the contrasting sections seemed insufficiently characterized.

The quartet played Schubert with sweetly matched phrasings, subtle interplay of voices and delicacy of light and shade. But despite that, certain aspects of the composer’s style--elements of nostalgia, loss, sadness emerging from or challenging a quiet, tender happiness--all seemed just on the verge of appearing, but somehow never quite did. Again, a certain emotional reticence prevailed.

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