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Takács Quartet

March 12, 2006

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As Good As It Gets

By David Bratman

There are three particular reasons a Bay Area resident might have wanted to attend the Takács Quartet concert at Berkeley's Hertz Hall last Sunday.

One reason was to hear again local favorite Geraldine Walther. Prior to joining the quartet last year, she was for nearly two decades the principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony and one of the orchestra's star musicians. (How often can you say that about a violist?)

The second reason is that the Takács are about the best string quartet one may ever hear. The agility of the players, the way they listen to and watch each other and meld their individual voices, and above all, the fierce energy and enthusiasm that they bring to a performance are of the very highest order.

A third reason is that the repertoire made for an excellent introduction to Beethoven's string quartets. Three quartets were offered, one from each of the three standard periods of the composer's career. They made interesting contrasts, both among themselves and with the Takács performing style.

Starting gently

For if the Takács are a fiery ensemble, with a sound evoking the group's Hungarian origins, the Beethoven quartets Op. 18 No. 3 and Op. 127, which opened and closed the program, are among his more sedate and placid works — as Beethoven goes, anyway.

Op. 18 No. 3 is the most Haydnesque of the Beethoven quartets, and the Takács evidently decided that the way to treat a Haydnesque work is to play it as if Haydn had written it. The performance was light and witty. Little rhythmic figures snapped off the players' fingers. Notes were traded back and forth among the instruments, delightfully off-balance in just the tiniest piquant way. Nevertheless, care and sensitivity showed throughout. The second movement ends smorzando (fading away) with a series of chords separated by long pauses. To watch these players keep ensemble at this moment, by breathing together as if they were one entity, was an education in string quartet playing by itself.

Beethoven's Op. 127 is one of the gentlest of his late-period quartets, but in a very different manner from anything from Op. 18 a quarter century earlier. Like its immediate successor, Op. 132, it has a massive slow movement at its heart, but it is less lyrical than the later work: a little dry and subdued. While this was the least exciting performance on the program, that's only a relative statement. There was lyricism and nuance enough. The third movement transcended the academic exercise that it often sounds like, and, as throughout the concert, the Takács gave full value to every sforzando and fp that Beethoven wrote.

A "heroic" highlight

The centerpiece of the concert, both chronologically and figuratively, was Op. 59 No. 2. This contrasted markedly with its companions, being perhaps the most daunting of the three monumental Op. 59 quartets, products of the height of Beethoven's “heroic” period. From the opening chords, the work comes from an entirely different world than Op. 18. This is not a light or casual Beethoven; he is not fooling around. The players tackled the work with a combination of brutal vehemence — heavily bowed strings bounced off the fingerboard with audible clicks — and exquisite lyricism. There were moments in the slow movement which could not possibly have been more beautiful, and a fast, bouncy finale where figures were traded off with lightning agility. It was an amazing performance, but not a surprise to anyone who's heard this group play before (with or without Walther) or knows their recordings.

If Hungarian vigor is the hallmark of the Takács Quartet, it doesn't come just from the two Hungarians in the ensemble. András Fejér, hunched over his cello, is if anything rather self-effacing as cellists go. He tends to blend his sound and favors short-breathed phrasing, although he can bring out the long melodic approach when he needs to. Károly Schranz, second violin, has a fairly dark, dry tone, and did not try to take the grandstand for his descant solo in the slow movement of Op. 59 No. 2. The Anglo-Americans at least equaled their energy. The British first violinist, Edward Dusinberre, is the master of melting lyricism. Never have Beethoven's melodies sounded lovelier than in his hands. Pushing the sound forward, rather than wallowing in it, is part of his secret. His tone is thin without being in any way less than strong and leading. And Geraldine Walther is one violist who refuses to be ignored, grinding her notes out with a wide vibrato and a powerful sound.

It would be wrong to imply that these players are anything other than equal, in both ability and power. Their ensemble is exquisite, their responsiveness to each other is both careful and flexible. But the tones of their instruments are strikingly different. So the result is very much a conversation among four voices, as string quartets are meant to be. The essential posture of this quartet came in moments where Dusinberre introduced phrases and Schranz responded to them, one by one, while Walther and Fejér played together below. Each sounds different, but all of them share one thought: playing Beethoven's music coherently and about as well as it can be played.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved