Takács Quartet Bartók Cycle at Queen Elizabeth Hall [2, 4 & 6]

String Quartet No.2
String Quartet No.4
String Quartet No.6

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

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 19 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Takács Quartet. Photograph: takacsquartet.comIf you look at Bartók’s string quartets in pairs, there is a strong argument that the second work in each pair is the better of the two. Having all three even-numbered quartets in one concert therefore makes for a satisfying evening. And as the members of the Takács Quartet have probably forgotten more about this music than I shall ever know, I am not about to quarrel with their interpretations – except to wonder why they introduced an element of Louder Means Faster, Quieter Means Slower into the outer movements of the Second Quartet.

However … I have a dream. I dream that one day I shall hear Bartók played with a really bright, colourful tone from all four instruments. There seems to be a tradition of garbing his quartets in a rather drab, grey, sludgy sonority, and this was what I heard from the Takács. The problem, as I see it, started with all those Hungarians from the Hubay school who had wide, wah-wah vibratos and made Bartók inhabit a world of warmish but matt sound. The Americans, who almost immediately made amends for having ignored Bartók by inventing their own way of playing him, were heavily influenced by the Juilliard Quartet. I can speak only for myself, but for decades I suffered whenever I heard Robert Mann’s white, somewhat unpleasant violin tone. And yes, I am aware what a fine musician he was.

Some readers may recall a Philips set of Bartók’s quartets which featured the Novák Quartet of Prague. It was not the most sensitive but it did at least clothe the music in some bright, primary colours. Another Prague ensemble, the Talich, managed the same feat in an almost too refined manner. The two ensembles which for me have penetrated deepest into the music are the Hungarian and Végh Quartets, both from the Hubay school. While I regret some of their tonal limitations, I hear humanity from both leaders, Zoltán Székely and Sándor Végh, that I have not encountered elsewhere. András Keller comes closest to it.

I did not object to the few rough edges from the Takács – after all, with the Végh Quartet one encountered more than a few of those! What made me slightly depressed was the quality of the sound. The Takács’s leader, clearly a good musician, has a rather cloying, uninteresting tone. The second violinist is a magnificent artist and in different company might sound a little brighter. The violist makes no impression on me at all. And the cellist? His solo in the central slow movement of the Fourth Quartet was a highlight of the evening. It was supple, tonally resplendent and deeply felt. Elsewhere he did not make an especially brave showing, although he kept his end up.

Having heard the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich last week, I found it all the more disappointing that there was so little colour and intensity in the Takács’s playing of some of the more ‘inward’ moments. I still remember the way the Keller Quartet sustained the tension in the slow finale of the Second Quartet. I shall not remember the Takács rendering. The two scherzos of the Fourth Quartet buzzed or plonked where appropriate but sounded like the proverbial pitchers that have gone too many times to the well.

The Sixth Quartet, perhaps the best of these works, is a very sad piece and seems almost valedictory (although we would probably think differently of it if the planned Seventh Quartet had materialised). The Takács performance began with a rather uninvolving viola solo and ended in a less than ideally intense way; but in between those points, despite the prevailing drab tone, it was the most satisfying of the three readings, doing reasonable justice to the many rhythmic subtleties.

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