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Takács Quartet Plays a Haydnesque Bartók

October 9, 2010

San Francisco Performances

Never have I understood the term “Papa Haydn” more clearly than I did at the Takács Quartet concert Saturday at Herbst Theatre, presented by San Francisco Performances. To open a string quartet concert with Haydn and close it with late Beethoven [Op. 127 in this case] is standard procedure. In many respects, Bartók (whose 4th Quartet was sandwiched in between) is radically different, but the Takács brought a distinct connection to Haydn. In all of these works the Takács achieve a perfect balance between unity and individuality. No individual ever has to “yell” to be heard; the others gladly yield sound-space, yet it doesn’t sound as if they are consciously making room but rather are listening without compromising their own lines. It was a strange sensation — almost like hearing a conversation inside your head — and a rare experience to hear a group of individuals coalesce into such an understanding whole. It is a special thing to witness, like a baseball team bound for the World Series.

I know it’s politically incorrect nowadays to talk of chamber music as a hierarchy, but in the Haydn (Op. 74, No. 3) the Takács first violinist, Edward Dusinberre, seemed positively royal on his high perch (the only player to use a raised piano bench in the first half). His erect posture contrasted with the rest of the quartet’s hunched-over body language. The later works were played more dramatically. Still, Dusinberre was no despot. Although he commanded the virtuosic leading lines masterfully, he listened to his advisors’ input and integrated it with his own judgment. The texture teemed with detail and activity from each of the Quartet’s four corners.

Second violinists often have to struggle to be heard, buried as they often are in the middle of the register. But Károly Schranz would easily grab the spotlight with dazzling contributions full of color. At several points in the first movement of the Haydn, he executed a risky lick entirely on the D string, producing a rich color that helped him cut through. At one point the strategy backfired with a slightly out of tune note high on that string. It was refreshing to see a bit of human imperfection and a risk taken (the passage could readily have been played on the A string with an easier fingering, though less special a sound).

San Francisco’s own, violist Geraldine Walther, plays with a glowing love for music that is infectious in a gentle, motherly way. Even when I heard her as principal violist with the S.F. Symphony or as a soloist in various viola concertos, she always seemed a chamber musician at heart: never egotistical; always listening, communicating, and playing with comforting warmth. And András Fejér, on cello, is no isolated supporter from down below but instead a fully compatible member of the conversation.

Casting a New Spell

When the Haydn was over, a joyous buzz filled Herbst Theatre, a buzz instantly killed by Béla Bartók. Bartók’s thorny 20th-century style can be jarring when set next to the loving Haydn. But the Takács quickly cast a different kind of spell with the Bartók, one certainly not devoid of humor and charm.

The Takács have been widely acclaimed for their Bartók interpretations, but until Saturday I had never heard one of them myself. Knowing what I do about Bartók and Hungarian stereotypes, I expected an incredibly passionate performance that would embrace dissonance with fiery passion. As it turned out, all of this was there when called for, but more dominant was a clear-headed, well-balanced approach. Dissonances turned into consonances; vigorous, modern machine-rhythms turned into country dances; anger and sadness turned into tricky games — all done through transparent musical conversations. It was a surprisingly Haydnesque approach, and it made a lot of sense. Two moments that stick in the mind were the tradeoff of reedy open-strings bursts, and Fejér’s eerily beautiful cello solo played over a hushed tonal cluster held in stasis by the upper strings.

Although Beethoven’s Op. 127 quartet is quite Haydnesque and was approached with that same light and bright mind-set, here some Romantic passion and angst was lacking.

Be'eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.