String Quartet in F, Op.96 (American)
String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op.122
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34
Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola) & András Fejér (cello)]
Stephen Hough (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 18 May, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Associate Artists of the Southbank Centre, the Takács Quartet here paired two composers who admired and corresponded with each other and also included one of Shostakovich’s most compact string quartets.
The foursome that make up the Takács Quartet are in many ways the epitome of chamber-music-making; each musician is a personality, each takes responsibility and there is an obvious rapport between them. Of Dvořák’s numerous string quartets, the only one that has really made an impression in popular terms is the so-called ‘American’ (written during his extended sojourn to New York in the mid-1890s, a period of work that also included the writing of the ‘New World’ Symphony). Whether it is his finest string quartet is a moot point. It is an attractive work, to be sure, full of tunes and bonhomie and crafted with the composer’s characteristic openness and acumen. This performance by the Takács Quartet took a while to settle in terms of intonation and the placing of detail; thus the excising of the exposition repeat meant that the performance only became fully focussed with the development section, which was given with increased intensity. The slow movement, the most soulful of the four and played here from the heart, rather overshadowed the opening one; the Scherzo seemed rather repetitive, but the finale was rhythmically incisive and melded judiciously the music’s ingredients of joyful melody and high spirits.
In complete contrast is Shostakovich’s concise – seven linked movements playing for 15 minutes or so – and ambiguous String Quartet No.11, composed in 1966 and dedicated to Vasily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, who had died the year before. The ambiguity, as so often with this composer, is that it is all too easy to hear secret codes, ciphers and other extra-musical ‘meanings’ to the introspective passages, tormented outbursts and ‘automatic’ rhythms. Without underplaying the music’s laconic and quizzical leanings, the Takács Quartet gave a less subjective reading than might have been the case and which was to the work’s advantage in that a musical process was apparent, satisfying on its own terms, and left ‘open’ any notions as to what this score might be ‘about’.
Brahms’s magisterial Piano Quintet completed the concert. For all that the lid of the piano was fully up, Stephen Hough assumed no undue domination and brought a light but characterful touch and natural phrase to bear. Such integration was a notable feature of a performance that was maybe too direct and flowing. The fieriness of the first movement (repeat taken) compelled attention as did the transparency of the textures (this was not Brahms portrayed as a ‘heavyweight’). The Andante lived up to its billing but the musicians overlooked the ‘un poco adagio’ qualification; its lullaby-like opening worked well but became too impetuous later, just as the scherzo was rather rigid, and the trio, while well integrated in terms of tempo, lacked rapture. The scherzo seemed to return all too soon.
The searching opening to the finale, recalling Beethoven’s ‘late’ string quartets, brought the most considered playing from the Takács. The contrasts of this and the Allegro were well made and the coda signalled a fine victory, one that would have made more impact if tensions earlier had been more concentrated and tempos more pliable. No doubting the teamwork of the five participants though.