Bartók used folk music to find his own voice as a composer of classical music. He roamed the Balkans, north Africa and the Middle East to rediscover models of what was really music to his ears, much in the same spirit as Picasso and others searched out models of primitive representations to refresh what we see. Last evening, the Tokyo String Quartet broke some boundaries and brought back the original freshness of Bartók’s discoveries as well as the innovations of Joseph Haydn, the inventor the string quartet.

Bartók’s String Quartet no. 5 (1935) is more about dance than song. The sounds are strange – mutterings, creaks, buzzes and whines, hisses, drones and pulses, less what you hear on the radio, more what you hear in the world and in your head. The thing is, Bartók makes them dance, gives them colour and new moves in fascinating rhythms that you can feel. The Tokyo have the chops to make the music jump, swirl and bump, grind, slide, zig and zag, form and fall apart, flicker and rock – all with wit, subtle style and grace.

At the same time, Bartók gives you the full palette of classical forms. The first movement is urgent polyphony, the opening motifs dance in counterpoint towards a fugue that blends with a sweet lyrical passage from Tokyo’s founding member Kazuhide Isomura’s viola and Kikue Ikeda’s violin. The second movement circles slowly through sounds of the night, remarkable for the trembling sighs of Martin Beaver’s first violin weaving like fine mist around the sombre sonic prominences of Clive Greensmith’s cello. The cello leads the skirt-swirling peasant dance opening the Scherzo that is the keystone of this quartet’s arch form, and the cello also leads the slide into the desolate Andante, whose darkness is pierced by the muted siren wail of black Marias. The final Allegro, marked vivace, is a finger-breaking chase over hill and dale interrupted briefly by a series of acidic observations from the first violin before a tick-tock melody signals the abrupt, enigmatic ending. I am grateful for this performance because it reminded me of my first connection with Bartók, via his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.

Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74 no. 3 fit into the program because it was part of a major stylistic breakthrough for Haydn. His attention-getting melodies also offered welcome relief from Bartók’s atonal, rhythmic intensities. The Tokyo players emphasized the more-than-usual quickness and slowness of the tempi Haydn explored, to enliven this series of works that came out of his first success in writing for a cosmopolitan public audience in 1790s London. Though the part-writing is brilliant and demanding, and the finale is energetic enough to earn for this quartet the nickname “Rider”, its overall effect was somehow calming.

The String Quartet no. 4 (1928) was nominated as perhaps “Bartók’s greatest and most profound achievement” by the musicologist Halsey Stevens. Like his Fifth, Bartók wrote it in five movements with the third movement as the keystone of an arch supported by symmetrical pairings of first and fifth, second and fourth movements. Altogether, this work showcases Bartók’s fanatical preoccupation with embracing the greatest diversity of form, timbre and harmony within an elaborate unifying network. To my mind, this is the work that expresses what it means to have lived through the 20th century: the pressures of urban living, the anxiety of social and economic uncertainty, the meaningless rush towards efficient production based on relentless consumption, and the great cessation at the core that comes with facing, accepting, and harmonizing all these forces within oneself.

The virtuosity of the players is here tested, and despite interruption by a second broken violin string, is not found wanting. The opening movement is based on a germinal cell that each instrument in turn plays, inverts, plays again at wider intervals, with altered rhythms, in canonic sequences, in layers overlapping other statements. The second movement is a race where the musicians mute all their strings and are required to perform other extended techniques such as glissandos and sliding pizzicatos. They keystone middle movement begins with Clive Greensmith’s cello playing solo improvisations around a slow-moving Hungarian folk melody that opens into a forest of distant bird and insects songs. For the fourth movement, the players put down their bows and play pizzicato, plucking or strumming or snapping the strings hard – “à la Bartok” – against the fingerboard. In the closing movement, violinists Martin Beaver and Kikue Ikeda make a duet of a ferocious Hungarian dance melody from the first movement and led the whole work spiralling back to end where it began.

Speaking of endings and beginnings, the Tokyo String Quartet, which began 40 years ago, will play again, and for the last time ever in Toronto, on 10 April, 2013, when they will complete their Bartók cycle. In June of this year, they will retire from the concert stage.