Takacs Quartet review: Lush but low-risk performances of the classics

Renowned string quartet's warm, beautiful interpretations leave a few frustrations.

by CHARLES NOBLE

Portland has a love affair with the Takacs Quartet. It’s not hard to see why. The four players (the two remaining founding members, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér, first violinist Edward Dusinberre, who joined in 1993, and violist Geraldine Walther, who joined in 2005) are all enormously appealing as personalities. Warmth and humor define them in their public appearances, whether they be signing recordings in the lobby after a concert, or giving one of their many masterclasses to students in each city they visit.

The Takacs Quartet performed at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

The Takacs Quartet performed at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

The quality of the ensemble is undeniable. They have won countless laurels during their 39-year history. Gramophone magazine recently inducted them into its Classical Music Hall of Fame. These concerts were the first time I’d heard them live since the departure of violist Roger Tapping and the introduction of his replacement, Walther. And while their Friends of Chamber Music concerts this past Monday and Tuesday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall were of a very high standard, they raised some niggling doubts about the quartet that I once regarded as almost second to none in the pantheon of great quartets.

Monday’s concert began with Schubert’s first really mature string quartet, a single movement work entitled, appropriately, Quartettsatz (Quartet movement). Right from the start, where rustling sixteenth notes are begun one by one until the entire quartet is abuzz, there was a decided disagreement as to how those repeated sixteenths would be played. Things soon settled in, however, and aside from some overly wide vibrato in the first major theme by Dusinberre, the group was in fine fettle, with a decidedly plush sonority and all in agreement as to the musical thrusts of the piece. One of the hallmarks of the Takacs is the warmth and roundness of its sound, very much in evidence in the Schubert. No lean and transparent treatment here, as might have been done by the Ebene or Artemis foursomes.

Bartók’s Fourth Quartet followed, which is repertoire at the very heart of the Takacs’ wheelhouse. The quartet has recorded the cycle twice in their history, both vivid documents of some of the greatest compositional output of the twentieth century — certainly the pinnacle of 20th century quartet writing. Their second recording, in particular, has coveted status in my library, with its deep understanding of the idiom of Bartók, and an effortless virtuosity that is always in service to the music rather than a “look what we can do” approach that other esteemed quartets have taken.

There were many fine moments in this performance of the Fourth, which is virtually a perfect piece, both in form and emotional content: cellist Fejér’s soulful and lonely song in the central slow movement; violist Walther’s skittering sul ponticello (on the bridge) passagework at the end of the insect scherzo that is the second movement; second violinist Schranz’s insouciant trouble making at nearly every turn — elfin and mischievous — poking this gesture and that, especially with Walther; first violinist Dusinberre’s spectacularly strummed pizzicati in the wryly humorous fourth movement.

But there was something missing. With the exception of an ensemble hiccup in the treacherous last movement, the Takacs’ played the entire quartet with their characteristically high technical standard. But it seemed that there were no risks taken. In the first movement, I longed for a greater contrast between the harsh opening motive and its softer counterparts, even at the conclusion of the movement, when all four instruments play the six note motive with massive chords and the dynamic and gestural instructions of fortissimo, peasante, and marcato, which are the musical equivalent of saying “turn it up to 11.” Where voices could have been brought out with subtle accents, as in the opening of the first movement, a general softness of attack obscured rather than highlighted what was happening in the music.

The second movement, a quicksilver wisp of a movement that ought to be over before it has begun, was just a tad labored, not all due to a slowish tempo — it was just a bit too loud. Its beginning really ought to register with the audience only after a few moments of seeing the musicians looking like they’re playing, then with ears straining, the rustling and scuttling motives can finally be discerned. Lincoln Hall is, with all its faults, definitely a hall where one can play as softly as possible and not have to struggle to be heard. So it just seemed that the foursome was taking things a bit on the safe side — not at all substandard, just a bit less than I was expecting.

After intermission, the quartet tackled Beethoven’s sprawling Op. 59 no. 1 “Razumovsky” quartet. Much has been made of its similarities to the contemporaneous Eroica symphony. Like the symphony, this quartet is much longer that any of its previous siblings — the first movement alone, if played with the exposition repeat, is nearly as long by itself as the slightest of his early Op. 18 quartets. As in the symphony, Beethoven has thrown off the mantle of his predecessors Haydn and Mozart and emerged with his own mature voice. Rhythmic elements have emerged as equal counterparts to melody and harmony.

The Takacs reminded me, in this reading, of the Berlin Philharmonic in its last Beethoven cycle under Herbert von Karajan. The ensemble was a purring luxury touring car, with all bumps dampened out of existence by its sophisticated hydraulic suspension system — very powerful, but also very heavy, and so limited in its ability to make quick changes of speed or direction. Despite the wonderfully sumptuous sound, I longed for some roughness that would grab me by my throat and take me on an exhilarating ride, as in the cross rhythms in the main climax of the scherzo, or some leanness that would serve to provide context and contrast. At the height of the scherzo, the quartet should sound like it’s a hapless woman being bounced around between those two club-going idiots from the Night at the Roxbury skits on Saturday Night Live. Instead, it was more like a delicate shoving match between members of the upstairs crew from Downton Abbey, all very restrained and a bit uncomfortable, taking pains not to make too much of a fuss.

The sublime slow movement was a bit more successful. This is quite a difficult movement to really make sense of due to its immense size and quiet intensity. Often, as happened in this performance, there is that point about halfway through the recapitulation and heading to the coda, where it feels like the quartet is just ready to get to the last movement, and is a bit impatient about how much farther there is to go. That being said, Dusinberre’s passagework at the end of the coda was impeccable and fleet, and the attacca transition into the Théme russe finale was absolutely magical in its hushed introduction by cellist Fejér.

Again, overall, I was looking for bigger contrasts. The quartet, however, seemed to be looking in other directions. Attacks were always rounded and soft-edged, and dynamic changes modulated carefully rather than pursued with abandon. There was nothing “wrong” with this approach; I just found myself unsurprised by any of the musical decisions. Everything seemed inevitable and organic, but more often than not, I wished for jolting and iconoclastic.

Impressive and Frustrating

Tuesday’s concert further explored the Takacs’ new (at least to my ears) demeanor. My very first exposure to the Takacs Quartet was through their recording of the Op. 76 quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn. His Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 64 No. 3, which opened the Takacs’ second concert, is a prime example (like any of Haydn’s other 70 authentic string quartets) of why most chamber musicians I know (including myself) prefer performing Haydn to Mozart. Haydn never lets up with the surprises. His humor is always hovering in the background, threatening to break into a serious moment, or make a light moment turn into an LOL one. The best ensembles (my favorite being the Hagen Quartett) find a wide range of colors in this music. Vibrato might be alternately sparing and lush, like switching from the cold glare of a spotlight to the warm glow of a camp lantern.

In Tuesday night’s performance, the Takacs seemed to take up where the previous evening’s Beethoven Op. 59 No. 1 left off. Round and lush was the order of the day in the first two movements, with the exception of cellist Fejer, who provided sharp, piquant attacks in the odd gallop rhythm that recurred in the first movement. The second movement Adagio benefited handsomely from this treatment. Dusinberre spun long the long, languid melodies with impressive ease (such long and slow melodies are amongst the most difficult to play convincingly), though I was struck, not for the first time, that second violinist Schranz’s tone seemed a bit brittle and thin by comparison to his colleagues.

Overall, however, it was a joy to hear this music played with such warmth and beauty. The rustic Menuetto was classic Haydn. Uneven phrase lengths and awkward pauses written into the music are designed to play into the expectations of knowledgeable audiences of the day (and even now). I liken these moments to “Easter eggs” in modern day video games, where pulling off a particular sequence of moves leads to a delightful surprise for the avid gamer.  The Takacs played up these idiosyncratic moments to exactly the right degree, and to the audience’s delight. The Allegro con spirito finale seemed to finally find the middle ground between their previously plush approach and a more lean and astringent style. Dusinberre dispatched his passagework with aplomb, and much apparent delight, as he smiled his way through one fiendish passage after another, and the entire quartet played with seemingly effortless command.

Written in 1824 (just one year before Beethoven’s Op. 130 was completed), several years after the Quartettsatz, Franz Schubert’s A minor Quartet, D. 804 “Rosamunde” is the first in a miraculous series of masterworks including his D minor Quartet “Death and the Maiden,” his sprawling final Quartet in G major, and the divinely perfect Quintet in C major. The performance was committed and lyrical, with the Takacs scraping off some of the plushness as the piece unfolded. In particular, the central slow movement, based upon a theme from his incidental music to the stage play Rosamunde, flowed with an ease that was entirely at odds with how difficult it is to make the music breathe in such a way. Throughout the entire performance, music just seemed to flow out of the quartet with burnished perfection.

The evening closed with one of the great string quartets of its or any other age. Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130 plays with the ‘conventional’ form of the string quartet in several fascinating ways. Most obviously, it is in six movements, rather than the much more usual four. The first movement, rather than having a slow introduction followed by a faster main body, instead chops up both and intermixes them practically at random through the course of the movement. The second movement Presto (very fast) is over practically before it begins, taking just over two minutes from start to finish. Not until the Six Bagatelles of Anton Webern do we find quartet movements shorter than this! And on and on.

The Takacs’ rendition of this masterpiece was both impressive and frustrating.The first movement, which I see as a very convincing musical portrait of schizophrenia, would have been even more effective had the quartet highlighted the character differences between the slow and fast sections. The slow sections lacked the sense of timelessness that the best performances do (the Guarneri Quartet’s second recording comes to mind), with the quick and skittering fast interruptions shocking us out of melancholy into a brief manic episode. In the best performances, ensembles are able to hold the tension of very long, slow melodic lines by keeping a very strong inner sense of rhythmic pulse. Paradoxically, this leads to a perception on the part of the listener that time has simply stopped. A prime example of this in orchestral music is in the very end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, marked Adagissimo (very, very slow), where the entire world seems to hold its breath for minutes at a time.

Likewise, compared to performances by the Emerson and Hagen quartets, this account of the second movement Presto seemed to sit back on its heels rather than careening towards the blind corners with apparent suicidal intent. I think of the Guarneri Quartet’s sly downward slithering chromatic scales in the first violin, followed by the answering vicious thunderclaps of the entire quartet. It was all sort of there, but not exhilarating. The Andante con moto third movement, a stunning set of variations, seemed to be more in the quartet’s wheelhouse on Tuesday evening. It flowed with a stately elegance and inevitability that is the hallmark of great Beethoven slow movement performances.

The Alla danza tedesca movement that followed is one of my favorite movements of all of the Beethoven quartets. It is a sly reference back to his teacher Haydn, with its off-kilter accents that fall on the “wrong” beat. In most other classical period works, the accented (or stronger) beat would be the first one in the bar (or downbeat). In this movement, Beethoven avoids any accents on the downbeat, instead putting the emphasis just half a beat later, which results in a melody that seems to represent a man walking with one leg longer than the other. The Takacs rounded off some of these awkward moments by lessening the amount or sharpness of the accents, which to me denied the movement much of its charm.

The famous Cavatina movement, the emotional heart of the quartet, is one of the most perfect single movements ever written for the string quartet. In the climactic beklemmt (anguished, oppressed) passage, the lower three voices laid down a simple accompaniment in groups of three notes, over which the violin plays a series of short, stammering figures in groups of two notes. At its best, this passage is the musical equivalent of watching a distinguished person slowly and irrevocably losing his or her mind. Performances by the Emerson and Guarneri quartets are those that I will hear forever in my mind’s ear, particularly the second recording of the quartet by the Guarneri Quartet. Here, it was all laid out very nicely, but the whole remained a bit less than the sum of its parts. The playing was fine, beautiful and inspired even, but lacked that moment of transcendence — where time stands still, like the bated breath before a wracking sob that has been long in coming — that I especially long for in this movement.

And now for the finale. In this performance, the quartet chose to play the Allegro movement instead of the original Grosse fuge ending. I think it was a wise choice. While the replacement is a much lighter weight piece of music, it benefitted very well from the treatment it was given by the Takacs. They managed to, with their slightly weightier interpretation of this movement, give it a bit more heft than it might otherwise receive. While it is still not the angry, intense, presaging of modernism that is the Grosse fuge, the lightness and grace of the alternative finale were an effective counterpoint to all of the machinations of the previous five movements, and in a way, harkened back to the work of “Papa” Haydn, where the string quartet as we know it began.

Violist Charles Noble plays in the Oregon Symphony and leads Portland’s Arnica Quartet.
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One Response.

  1. Curtis heikkinen says:

    Superlative review. I don’t recall reading such detailed analyses of performances set forth in such an elegant, thoughtful manner. This could only have been written by a professional musician who is also a fine writer. Some of comments are difficult for a non-musician such as myself to fully understand but the thrust of your remarks is very comprehensible. This review must have taken considerable time and effort. Thanks for doing so. Although I wasn’t at the concert, this review gave me a good idea of what transpired, which is what I look for in a review.

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