The Takács Quartet
In its recital at St. Francis Auditorium on April 16, the Takács Quartet justified its reputation as one of the world’s preeminent chamber ensembles through a magisterial performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major (Op. 59, No. 1), which occupied the second half of the program. Although the group has been “internationalized” by turnovers in the first violin and viola chairs since its founding in Budapest 40 years ago, it maintains aspects of the burnished timbre and impeccable blend associated with the finest Central European string quartets. That does not mean that the Takács foursome merely concerns itself with making pretty sounds. What was most remarkable, in fact, was the group’s ability to illuminate sudden, momentary shifts of color and emotion, even extending to timbral scratchiness in the amusing suggestion of a drumbeat that governs the second movement. In this volatile score, the musicians turned on a dime without ever breaking the flow of their argument. The third movement, Adagio molto e mesto, was rendered less mesto (sad) than one sometimes hears it, reaching just to melancholy, not lugubrious in the least and providing a canvas for an outpouring of unusually beautiful cello playing. The players put a fine edge on the rhythmic displacements of the finale, where the ensemble repeatedly delighted in conveying a wry, furtive character. Beethoven is bread and butter for any quartet, and the Takács rendered this seminal score with a comfort born of long familiarity yet without ever slackening the sense of excitement and discovery.
Haydn’s Emperor Quartet (Op. 76, No. 3) did not make quite so strong an impression as the program’s opening item, though it, too, held abundant pleasures. By the second movement the group had settled in sufficiently to unleash an elegantly calibrated rendition of Haydn’s celebrated variations, culminating in a coda beautifully poised to support the balance of his counterpoint. I regretted the group’s decision to go without repeating the exposition of the finale. I would not have thought it optional since repeating it would reinforce the minor mode in which Haydn appears to have anchored this finale (falsely, it turns out). As it was, the minor mode came across as merely a passing peculiarity rather than a fully developed red herring.
In between came the String Quartet No. 2 by Carter Pann, a colleague of the ensemble’s on the faculty of the University of Colorado-Boulder, where the Takács has been in residence since 1983. The work displayed a sort of bland competence without ever really igniting. The opening movement, titled “L’Extase” (Ecstasy), was vaguely medieval-ish without approaching the sublime. Neo-Renaissance allusions arrived in a later movement, which appeared to reach out to the 15th-century pop song “L’homme armé,” and an energetic section with mixed meters was a limp shout-out to jazz. It was explained from the stage that a movement titled “Escher’s Rounds” was to provide a musical equivalent to the optical trickery of the beloved Dutch printmaker. If this objective succeeded, it was lost on me. The Takács Quartet was gracious to learn the piece and include it on its tour program. It’s the kind of good deed one does for one’s faculty colleagues. But through most of it, I couldn’t help imagining a thought bubble hovering over the ensemble that read, “We could be playing Bartók instead, darn it.”
— James M. Keller
Takács Quartet St. Francis Auditorium, April 16