Takács Quartet with Ralph Kirschbaum at St George’s Bristol – Schubert & Ravel

Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
String Quartet in F
String Quintet in C, D956

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

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 17 May, 2012
Venue: St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, England

Takács Quartet. Photograph: takacsquartet.comThe particular make-up of the personnel of a string quartet is intrinsic to its musical identity. But there is always a perceptible surge of creative energy when other players enrol. For this concert, the Takács members were joined by Ralph Kirschbaum for Schubert’s great C major String Quintet. It proved a memorable collaboration.

Schubert’s Quartettsatz (the first movement of an unfinished work) may be a conventional opening to a concert, but it is the ideal one, not least for being in the minor mode, the antithesis of the serenity of C major. Here, the initial bars bristled with tension while yet being delivered with the slightly understated quality so characteristic of the Takács approach. The repeat of the exposition was more incisively defined, adjusting the perspective and pointing up phrasing. It helped heighten awareness of the fine balance between wonderful melody and fierce interjection throughout the movement.

Pairing Schubert with Ravel’s String Quartet was inspired. This early masterpiece is testament to Ravel’s genius, testament too to the folly of the Prix de Rome judges who denied him the honours that should have been his due and to the perceptiveness of Debussy whose injunction to his younger colleague was not to change a single note. The Takács musicians invested the first movement with a magical aura: the sound gently veiled and infinitely sensitive, so that the briefly explosive moments could surface and recede without ever impeding the almost febrile fluidity of the lines. The theme heard in the first violin and viola, an octave apart, is Ravel at his most evocative and the burnished tone of violist Geraldine Walther was heard to fullest advantage. Playfulness with the pizzicatos and the cross-rhythms lent a carefree feel to the second movement, while the subtle tonal colours of the slow movement were another reminder that the Ravel DNA is already imprinted here. In the opening of the finale, the mix of exuberance and agitation was arresting, while both the periodic returning to moods of earlier movements and the occasional rawness in contrast to Ravel’s natural refinement was adroitly handled.

Schubert’s String Quintet is one of the great masterpieces of the repertoire and all the more poignant for being his last work in the chamber music medium. But in this performance the sense of awesome responsibility to the composer was mediated by the sheer joy and satisfaction of playing together. Ralph Kirschbaum’s cello – a Montagnana which belonged to Carlo Piatti – produces the kind of rich sound wholly unmistakable in the texture, but the way he varied the weight so as to fulfil the varying role Schubert gives the second cello was most discerning. Sometimes solidity was required, sometimes a sound to complement or meld with András Fejér’s first cello – the happy complicity of the two was evident – and at other times it was a question of adding to the harmonies that velvety darkness of tone which sets this work apart from any other. Schumann was referring to the ‘Great’ C major Symphony when he talked of its “heavenly length” but the description could just as well apply to the first movement of this Quintet. The Takács made it even longer by taking the exposition repeat, arguably not as essential in structural terms as in Schubert’s other sonata-movements (the first of the B flat Piano Sonata, D960, for example) but, when transported to heaven, any complaint seems redundant. The transcendent beauty of the Adagio was exquisitely realised, with the central section given passionate urgency, before returning to contemplative stillness. After such intensity, the scherzo offered a necessary rebalancing of energies. And given the Hungarian blood of the two founding members still playing, Károly Schranz and Fejér, it shouldn’t have been surprising to get such a lovely lilt to the dancing Allegretto finale, a disarming touch. In this movement, as in all the others, the balance between super-flexible flow and fidelity to the score was beautifully judged – and it made the very final flourish with its D flat coming down on to the C all the more defiantly dramatic.

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