Takács Quartet – James MacMillan Premiere

String Quartet in G minor, Op.74/3 (Rider)
String Quartet No.3 [Southbank Centre commission: world premiere]
String Quartet No.3 in B flat, Op.67

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

Reviewed by: Dave Paxton

Reviewed: 21 May, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Takács Quartet. Photograph: takacsquartet.comJames MacMillan’s first string quartet, subtitled ‘Visions of a November String’, was newly heard in May 1989, the second following in 1998. Here, the Takács Quartet gave the world premiere of MacMillan’s String Quartet No.3: it was a deeply considered and well-prepared performance.

The piece is divided into three movements, the first constructed around, according to the composer, the “memory of sonata form”, the second conjuring a weird, angular landscape, composed of fragmented melodic ideas and Janáček-like dance rhythms, and the third is an extended solo for the first violin. MacMillan’s soundworld, so distinctive in his orchestral works, translates effectively into the idiom of chamber music, musical/dramatic contrast and unorthodox use of instruments painting a broad, imaginative musical canvas across the work’s half-hour span.

The most successful movement is the last, the shaded, disembodied harmonic progressions both destabilising and urging on the lyrical solo violin line, while the strings’ timbre rises from the bass regions to the stratosphere. As the music reaches ecstatic heights, the first violin becomes an eagle, hovering blissfully on the still yet ever-changing air, before the drama fades cinematically into the brilliant haze of the horizon. The movement contrasts well its two predecessors, the first’s opening chant-like theme growing to a frenzied cluster of interlocking lines, the second replacing the pure string tone with a patchwork quilt of disembodied instrumental tapping and moaning. MacMillan understands well the function of silence, which hangs suspended for its duration, this performance greatly enhanced by the professional, committed work of the Takács Quartet, its members making MacMillan’s difficult lines seem wholly natural.

Haydn’s ‘Rider’ Quartet did not hit the same heights here, various inadequacies of intonation marring an interpretation that provided the music with a smooth coating of varnish, while strongly suggesting the bubbling drama lying beneath. The musicians’ quivering vibrato and thoughtful dynamic range in the Largo assai sent the temperature up a notch. But elsewhere, for all the intricacy of the playing, the music never appeared to breathe, to swell and contract, to truly dig to the heart of Haydn’s genius.

The performance of Brahms’s Third String Quartet induced similar feelings: it was clean, clear, energetic and slightly colourless, the most memorable passages being those benefiting from more muscular brightly hued colours and there was an energetic sense of conclusion.

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