String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.25
String Quartet No.2 in C, Op.36
String Quartet No.3, Op.94
Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola) & András Fejér (cello)] with Peter Eyre (narrator)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 3 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
There are three numbered works forming the main body of Benjamin Britten’s contribution to the string quartet medium, and they were played here in chronological order by the Takács Quartet as part of Wigmore Hall’s early festival marking the composer’s centenary. The Takács members gave prominence to String Quartet No.3, the composer’s last completed work, through readings from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the work of literature on which Britten set his final opera, the Third Quartet taking a number of its themes.
As Peter Eyre read the excerpts in soft but sonorous tones, the Takács Quartet sat on the platform, listening intently, and began playing as soon as the final sentence had finished. The performance was exemplary, each expressive nuance meticulously prepared and each passage of unison given as if through one instrument. This became a telling aspect of the opening ‘Duets’ movement. Several musical points of reference emerged, too, emphasising the composer’s homage to Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich. At times it felt as though the piece was doubling as a memorial to the latter composer, who died just months before the work’s completion in 1975.
That the Takács musicians channelled all these elements and more into their performance explains the total silence and concentration with which the final notes were received. Leading up to that we had a wonderful sense of stillness informing ‘Solo’, in which Edward Dusinberre’s tone was particularly beautiful – almost too sweet at times. A gruff ‘Ostinato’ gave way to that final ‘Recitative and Passacaglia’, and here there was the strongest possible sense of the music being on the brink, passing between the stages of life and death – as indeed was Britten while completing it. The question mark on which it ended was profound.
This was the high point of the recital, but the other works were also extremely assured in terms of performance. Both pieces started at a barely audible pianissimo level, the Takács interpretations notable for their feather-light touch and reluctance to hit a truly loud dynamic unless the music absolutely demanded it. This ensured that the intimacy of both the earlier quartets was strongly conveyed, with the beautifully rendered three-note cluster of No.1 and a feathery lightness of touch with which the Allegro calmo of the Second began. At the other end of the scale were the quasi-orchestral textures of the finale of Quartet No.1, in which multiple-stopping and quick-fire arpeggios were beyond reproach. The musicians also caught the bittersweet nature of the First’s slow movement, the initial warmth increasingly overshadowed by the motions of cello and viola. In the substantial ‘Chacony’ with which the Second closes there was a similarly probing intensity and singularity of thought, using striking delicacy and restraint to convey musical thought, all the way to a stately finish.
It is perhaps overlooked that Britten’s contribution to the string quartet medium, whilst not numerous, is sufficiently innovative to place him alongside Bartók and Shostakovich as among the very finest in 20th-century music. From the Takács Quartet this notion was made real through these extremely well-prepared and executed readings.