The Tokyo String Quartet played a kind of “meta-goodbye” concert this Saturday evening at 92Y. The performance, their last at this venue before the quartet is disbanded, featured three great composers’ own farewells, the final works written for string chamber ensembles by Schubert, Haydn, and Bartók. The Tokyo Quartet’s personnel has changed since its inception in 1969 – its current members are violinists Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura, and cellist Clive Greensmith – and the group has existed in its current form since 2002.

In the fall of 1828, Schubert, by then seriously ill, experienced one final burst of creative activity (he would die in November). That autumn saw the composition of the last three piano sonatas, several great vocal works including “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” and the song cycle Schwanengesang, and the String Quintet in C major, D.956, the so-called “Cello Quintet”. As in the Piano Quintet (“Trout”), where a double bass replaces the customary second violin, Schubert creates a more bass-heavy ensemble in the Cello Quintet by adding an extra cello to the normal string quartet format, as opposed to the extra viola employed, for instance, in Mozart’s six works for five strings.

This work and Bartók’s String Quartet no. 6, Sz. 114 are what you might expect from a composer’s late work: slow-paced and expansive, with a poignant, searching quality permeating even the most emotionally direct passages. Bartók completed the piece shortly before fleeing Europe at the outbreak of World War II, and it was premièred in New York. (As masterly as this piece is, he apparently did intend to write a seventh quartet, so it would be presumptuous to claim that this was “meant” to be Bartók’s final statement in the genre.)

The weirdest item on this program was undoubtedly Haydn’s unfinished String Quartet in D minor, Op. 103. After writing 67 other string quartets (not including those which scholarship now attributes to other composers), Haydn fell just short of finishing this one. Interestingly – and, I would guess, nearly unique among works under the label “unfinished” – the two movements Haydn did complete were published during his lifetime. The Andante grazioso and Menuet, which would have been the middle two of the quartet’s four movements, contain some wonderful music, although it was strange to hear them performed as a standalone work.

Any great chamber ensemble is worth only as much as the chemistry among its members, who spend years growing accustomed to their colleagues’ every mannerism. For ensembles entirely within one instrument family (all-string or all-woodwind groups, for instance), a well-matched sound is an important part of this chemistry, the group’s musical signature. So for all the wonderful moments in this concert, especially in the second half, the Schubert quintet provided a jarring opening. Cellist Lynn Harrell joined the Tokyos to play the second cello part of this massive work, and although his playing was generally excellent it virtually never matched the other players’ dynamics or timbre. Mr Harrell was consistently a bit louder and bolder in approach than the Tokyos, so the more successful sections of the piece were those that demanded more extroversion from the quartet. At such moments, as in the Presto outer sections of the third movement, their sound matched his, but rarely was the opposite the case.

Hearing the Tokyos on their own in the second half of the program was more rewarding. After some lovely playing in the Haydn, they gave an excellent reading of the Bartók. The same velvety sound that provided serenity in much of the Schubert quintet was here the central element of a more troubled atmosphere. In the first movement, chorale-like textures alternated with twisting, chromatic counterpoint. The quartet achieved a carefully blended color in the former, and subtle independence of timbres and voices in the latter. Their otherwise pensive take on the piece was injected with biting sarcasm in the second movement, where the final statement of the march-like theme was taken just a hair slower and slides in the violin parts were pointedly exaggerated.

The Tokyo Quartet took some risks throughout the concert, skewing very slightly out of tune or marring otherwise perfect coordination, but the final movement of the Bartók made a powerful argument for this artistry-first approach. The complete emotional deflation that concludes this piece came across very convincingly this evening, the result of far more than careful rehearsal and solid technique. Four artists attaining one collective musical voice is the highest goal in quartet playing, and such complete coordination of spirit served as a fitting goodbye to this accomplished group.

***11