International Chamber Music Series – Takács Quartet (14 November)

String Quartet in F, Op.18/1
String Quartet in F
String Quintet in C, D956

Takács Quartet with Natalie Clein (cello)
[Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Roger Tapping (viola) & András Fejér (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 14 November, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This was an evening that embodied the best traditions of European string quartet playing. Although their playing has always been noted for its energy and vivacity, the Takács quartet have the intimacy, the concentration and the inner certainty that have long been valued as the qualities appropriate for expressing this most profound of musical forms. For the audience, the best string quartet concerts often resemble eavesdropping on a private occasion. Even in a relatively large – and gratifyingly full – auditorium like the QEH, this was the case. If one has any criticism at all, it was simply how demanding so long a programme was on the ears as well as on the performers’ fingers.

The first of Beethoven’s six Op.18 quartets is by no means an easy work. While the outer movements have an eighteenth-century feel, and were given a restrained, almost ascetic, interpretation, the long slow movement, supposedly inspired by the tomb scene from “Romeo and Juliet”, imposes an additional dimension of emotional longing. In the programme notes, the Takács flag the problem of trying to see the Op.18s either as a successor to Mozart and Haydn or a pre-figuring of the Razumovskys (Op.59). In giving their performance the outward form of the one era and the heartfelt synthesis of the other, they triumphantly succeeded in resolving the issue, if at the cost of signalling this would be a concert of high seriousness and conscious depth.

The opening of the Ravel told how perfect the mutual understanding is between the quartet’s members. The balance between the various parts, the weighing of the chords as if by a single person, the expert judgement of the sound-picture: all these spoke of four players whose rapport between and awareness of one another has become perfectly intuitive. The succeeding movements – speeds in the ’Scherzo’ and the ’Très lent’ that seemed naturally right – hinged on the beguiling, other-worldly melodies of that slow movement, and effortless adjustment to the need for a more integrated, impressionistic sound, again gave an experience that was civilised, coherent and deeply considered.

Like many soloists who take the second cello part of the Schubert – one thinks above all of Rostropovich – Natalie Clein was inclined to make the most of its expressive possibilities, straining to fill out with intense emotion what can be quite bare writing. Her playing could not be faulted, and her view of this universally admired work as a tragic exploration – and celebration – of the limits of life, and reconciliation with death, seemed, both in sound and in the programme notes, to chime with the Takács’s own views. At moments, however, especially in pizzicato passages, her very passion resulted in an imbalance with the unified and very single-minded Takács. I would be curious one day to hear a performance of this work with the guest taking the first cello role. With the dramatic possibilities of the slow movement particularly well explored, and an unusually marked grimness in the ’Finale’, this was Schubert seen at his grandest, and greatest, his vision of universality bursting out from chamber form.

The Takács is a quartet that favours a silvery, almost astringent sound. Although Edward Dusinberre is capable of great sweetness of tone – for instance in the second subject of the Ravel and Schubert first movements – the players favour clarity over self-advertisement, classical restraint over indulgence, and mordant irony over unbuttoned relaxation. The Takács are well suited to the lighter, Hungarian dance elements with which the quintet ends, yet ultimately these performances were about what music can tell us than the joy of living.

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