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Setting the Bar in Beethoven

March 27, 2007

Ah, a Takács Quartet recital. Another few months gone (the violist-groupie in me thinks), another rare chance to hear Geraldine Walther play. Only I find that I'm not really thinking about the Takács' visits like that anymore. Walther is a great violist, but the Takács with her in it is something more interesting — a great quartet, and one that seems to become greater by the minute. Sunday's all-Beethoven recital, presented by Cal Performances at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall, the last we'll hear from this quartet for some time locally, found the players working at a fearsomely high level.

Takács Quartet

Every time I hear the Takács in its current lineup, I marvel anew at how singularly effective its improbable combination of colors is. The two non-Hungarians — first violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Walther — sound like they come from one timbral tradition, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér, from another one. And yet, what you actually hear is a magnificent unanimity of expression and intention, spiced with just enough independence of line to keep the texture constantly alive and interesting. Dusinberre's light, lithe violin and Walther's heady viola are the dominant colors, but Schranz's meatier sound lends its own cast to the upper-string color, while Fejér's obstreperous cello gives the whole thing a salutary kick in the pants from below.

Sunday's Beethoven (early, middle, and late) gave every element of that interesting melange a place in the sun. In the F-Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1, it was the remaining founding members who seemed to provide the motive power — especially Fejér, whose irrepressible energy stamped the entire performance. In the "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, by contrast, the heart-stopping moments belonged to the other two players. Dusinberre's dashing account of the first movement's long, brilliant coda was topped only by Walther's gloriously sung playing of the "viola variation" in the finale.
Individual, Yet Indivisible
As for the late C-sharp-Minor Quartet, Op. 131, if anyone needed proof that the Takács players can blend and be distinct at the same time, it was there in the opening fugue. That was a solemn and immaculate performance that nonetheless avoided mere pristine coldness. It was alive and human as well as (in the original sense) awesome. Later on, the internal dynamics of the quartet came once more into play, with Fejér again often the instigator. The little wormy bits intruding in the cello toward the end of the fourth movement variations led to a penultimate variation that was colored as I've never heard it — the cello fillips, first violin trills, and the tune in octaves between them sounding together like some sort of mechanical superinstrument.

Then in the E-Major scherzo following, Fejér, for once, took seriously the sul ponticello (on the bridge) indication, which comes right as the movement is self-destructing, and the others followed suit. That movement, by the way, was the site of the few slightly untidy moments in a concert generally about as note-perfect as quartet playing ever gets.

There was no encore (what can you play to follow Op. 131?), but that wasn't the fault of the capacity audience, which spent several noisy minutes giving an almost-unanimous standing ovation.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.