Takács Quartet Bartók Cycle at Queen Elizabeth Hall [1, 3 & 5]

String Quartet No.1
String Quartet No.3
String Quartet No.5

Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola) & András Fejér (cello)]

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 18 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Takács Quartet. Photograph: takacsquartet.comBartók’s six string quartets have emerged as perhaps the cycle of the twentieth-century string quartet canon. Spread across his creative life, their composition mirrored his evolving musical voice. Presenting them as a cycle has proved a problem with some interesting solutions: in one concert, as the Emerson Quartet has done; across a day, as did the Belcea Quartet at Wigmore Hall in 2008; or, as here, over two evenings. However they’re programmed, a quantity of Bartók’s often abrasive quartets tends to exaggerate their similarities more than their differences, but in breaking the cycle up the Takács Quartet helpfully sampled works from contrasting stages of Bartók’s development.

Despite having been composed quite so long before the main body of the quartets, the First (1905-7) still plays with many familiar Bartókian tropes. Typically frantic rhythmic games played out in a hinterland between major and minor feature in the knockabout finale, as they do in many of these works. The slow anguished build of the first movement foreshadows similar music in the roughly contemporaneous First Violin Concerto and the later masterpiece, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, and the brittle but flowing approach of the Takács Quartet underlined its mounting contrapuntal tread.

Then a jump forward to 1927 for Bartók’s Third Quartet, his most compact work in the genre. It’s essentially a one-movement work, concentrated in energy but noticeably conflicted between particularly vigorous dynamism and a depressed mood of futility. The great strength of the Takács Quartet in these works is the feeling of fragility conveyed by the musicians; there’s an intentional instability to their well-matched vibrato that signals the uncertainty and conflict at the heart of these works. They may not always have the razor-sharp precision or forceful projection of some of their younger colleagues, but the Takács members convey the world of shifting colour in this music that can elude others.

There was no lack of commitment and accuracy from the Takács Quartet in the unison opening of the Fifth Quartet (1934), which dissolves the bar-lines and asks the players to act as one. This work hints at the softening of Bartók’s style during his last decade and it’s certainly more varied in material. Bartók plays with instrumental technique to such an extent that the movements feel at times like etudes: glissandos, trills and pizzicato used in many inventive ways, but always in the service of something more relaxed and introspective. The Takács Quartet was particularly effective in the moments of secure tonality that occasionally alleviate the central movements’ nocturnal chromaticism and in the runaway excitement of the work’s conclusion. These string quartets can be quite forbidding if treated solely as modernist experiments with a classical form; across the three works, the Takács Quartet did the greatest service to the music by fuelling them with nervous emotional charge.

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