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The Takács Quar­tet

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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

Takács Quar­tet

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