String Quartet in F, Op.18/1
String Quartet in E flat, Op.74 (Harp)
String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131
Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola) & András Fejér (cello)]
Reviewed by: Rian Evans
Reviewed: 14 November, 2009
Venue: Assembly Rooms, Bath
The Takács Quartet’s Beethoven cycle will, in due course, surely be counted as one of the highlights of the group’s career, and to be present at any of its performances will doubtless count as one of the highlights in a lifetime’s listening. Even if one has grown up believing that the Amadeus Quartet reigned supreme – and for all time – it is the Takács members who now challenge that conviction. They have for a long time demanded to be considered as the finest string quartet but, since being joined by violist Geraldine Walther, their playing has attained new heights. This morning recital confirmed their consummate artistry.
The programme balanced quartets from Beethoven’s early, middle and late period and the interpretations were revelatory. Any preconceptions as to how something would sound were immediately forgotten: the Takács seem to approach everything with a combination of freshness and wisdom that is totally disarming.
The opening nugget-like motif of the Quartet in F is effectively the germ-cell of the whole movement: the Takács managed to make it convey a great deal in that one tiny phrase, yet not be so portentous as to be overloaded. Each subsequent appearance of this motif had a slightly different feel about it – with a different weighting or a different colour because of change of harmony – while the movement overall carried the bubbling energy that Beethoven was surely aiming at when he marked the tempo Allegro con brio. In many ways, this single movement embodied the essential facets of the Takács style, this capacity to re-examine and illuminate every detail of a score but, at the same time, maintaining a momentum as well as an implicit sense of the architectural span. The result is music-making at the highest possible level, projected and shared with the audience with warmth and modesty that suggests that honouring the composer is the only concern. The simplicity and poignancy of the D minor Adagio took on a visionary quality which looked ahead to the world of the late quartets, with the sheer beauty of the sound that the quartet realised casting its own bewitching spell. The scherzo was witty and playful – a reminder that this was still a young Beethoven, who had by no means abandoned the world of Haydn – while the finale had tightly disciplined rhythmic definition.
The ‘Harp’ Quartet had a similar integrity, the opening expressive introduction immediately reaching to the very core of things and establishing what felt like a touchstone for the whole of the work. In the main Allegro, the rhythmic precision was significant and, in that context, it was fascinating to hear the pizzicato notes, which give the quartet its nickname: sometimes, these pizzicatos are exaggerated as though their sole purpose were to justify the nickname; here, the attack was altogether softer, underlining their place in Beethoven’s thematic scheme. In the Adagio ma non troppo, the Takács brought a depth of emotion and tone-colour which was totally compelling. Being thrown into the scherzo was a shock and yet the perfect foil to what had gone before, while the finale’s Variations were able to highlight Beethoven’s invention in each one and keep that in balance with the overarching structural form. Never has this work emerged as quite such a turning point in the Beethoven cycle.
There is just one word for Opus 131: bliss. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to try and analyse how or why, but the radiant ease that characterises the Takács Quartet’s playing is undeniable and, as such, simply fascinating. The four musicians communicate with each other all the time, whether through darting eye contact, bowing signals, or a stamp of a foot but, more than that, the sense of a deeply empathetic process connecting them is almost palpable. As they are alive to every moment, so the listener too experiences the music with a vibrant intensity and quite different from any similar ensemble.