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Takács Quartet Shines on a Hungarian Rarity

April 20, 2018

San Francisco Performances

Takács Quartet

Half of the Takács Quartet is Hungarian, so it seemed fitting that Wednesday’s program at Herbst Theatre featured a work of Ernő Dohnányi, whose quartets are rarely heard.

Really, it wasn’t so long ago that the Hungarian composer lived in Florida. He died in 1960, which, by classical music standards, is practically current — so it can feel incongruous to listen to his music, a lot of which sounds like Brahms.

Dohnányi’s works may not have been very new for the time, but some were certainly original in their own way. Parts of the Second String Quartet, which he wrote when he was about 30, take after Dvořák (the Presto) and Schubert (the Adagio) — with blatantly similar motives in the same keys — but other melodies are distinctive and memorable. More than that, they’re enjoyable, even though they repeat again and again.

In fact, the Takács Quartet’s performance seemed to be on the defensive. Even the soupiest harmonies were unsentimental, the first movement’s Allegro fluid and clear. The thick accompanying figures never clouded the balance, and in the development, the counterpoint of the duets was remarkably transparent.

The Adagio’s chorale, at key moments, took on a muted, hollow sound that contrasted effectively with the warmer expressivity of the outer sections. Yet the performance could have luxuriated more. Harmonies change practically every beat, and without clear points of arrival, it’s easy for the chords to pass by unappreciated.

On the other hand, forward motion made the slow movement of Mozart’s Quartet in G Major, K. 387 — the highlight of a beautifully refined performance — all the more powerful. The brilliant first violin passages (Edward Dusinberre) never lingered a moment; the whole movement was ephemeral in a way that, instead of being easy, heightened the tension. Especially in the modulating passages, the group’s sound began to anticipate the later quartets of Mendelssohn, whose work would appear later in the program.

The finale, though, harkens back to the Baroque era with a rousing fugue. It was both breathless and precise; the first movement was ebullient. The lurching accents in the otherwise graceful minuet often give pause — did Mozart really want this? — but Takács exploited them in the best way, so that they tied in with the stormy off-beats in the later trio.

The passion of Mendelssohn’s final quartet, Op. 80, came through especially in the second movement, Allegro assai. The sound was reckless, but the ensemble wasn’t, and everything was taut. The first movement’s recurring tremolos, though, were sometimes unstable, as were the scherzo sections of the Dohnányi second movement (which, it must be said, doesn’t automatically come off well — the ricochet entrances and not-exactly-intuitive rhythms don’t boost confidence in performance). These moments were striking only because they didn’t attain the same high level that the rest of the performance did.

After all, the Takács sound doesn’t seem to rest on each player — violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér — matching the others exactly. Instead, a certain amount individualism, when directed appropriately, can create rewarding contrasts. In the Mendelssohn Adagio, for example, the sweetness with which Dusinberre played his melodies stood out from the rest of the group’s more earthly, concentrated sound; it was a lovely juxtaposition. Other times, though, these differences sounded less intentional — like in the Mendelssohn’s finale, where inconsistencies in vibrato and bow usage made the shared lines fluctuate in intensity.

The Takács sound, in fact, will soon change: founding member Schranz is retiring this month. Starting in May, audiences may hear how his successor, Harumi Rhodes, contributes to the group.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.