Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Weavers of gold

András Fejér, Edward Dusinberre, Geraldine Walther and Károly Schranz - The Takács String Quartet.
Takács in Hungarian means "weaver," which has always struck me as the perfect moniker for the Takács String Quartet (which was founded in Budapest nearly 36 years ago, and visited Jordan Hall last weekend under the aegis of Celebrity Series). True, the quartet is named partly for its founder, Gabor Takács-Nagy, but somehow it seems worth noting that "weaver" is such a straightforward word - hardly arty or sylvan; and yet we understand precisely what it means in terms of a string quartet. These guys thought of themselves as weavers. Weavers of something exquisitely beautiful, of course! But still - just weavers.

And Hungarian weavers, at that. For somewhere deep in the weave of the Takács sound, you can still hear, I think, the lilt of Romany life, a dash of country spice, perhaps even a flicker of gypsy fire. This although only two of its founding members, Károly Schranz on second violin and András Fejér on cello, are still with the quartet. Time's vicissitudes, and even death, I'm sad to say, have taken other members; the current ensemble includes Edward Dusinberre on first violin and Geraldine Walther on viola. Neither, you might guess, is Hungarian; Dusinberre's British, and Walther American. Yet both these virtuosos have (yes) woven themselves superbly into the quartet's core sound while hinting here and there at their own distinct musical personalities (Dusinberre - eloquence; Walther- swoon).

You felt this artful braiding most keenly in the group's opening gambit, Haydn's Quartet No. 55, Op. 71.  It's a big, wonderfully variegated piece, an entertainment that in its reach clearly aims for the concert hall rather than the salon - and indeed, it was one of the first pieces of "chamber music" written expressly for public (rather than private) performance.  The Takács took it at a spirited clip, and without slighting its complexity or lyrical finish, suggested a dancing lightness that reminded one - oh yes! - that Haydn spent much of his life in Hungary, at the Esterhazy estate.

Next came Béla Bartók, via his String Quartet No. 3 - a very different kind of Hungarian sound (and mood).  Unsurprisingly, the Takács has made a specialty of Bartók - after all, his string quartets are widely regarded as the pinnacle of the form in the twentieth century.  Most of the Third Quartet is a vast architecture of anxiety built from the simplest of means (a short motif comprised of a rising fourth and a falling minor third). From this simple seed Bartók conjures an intense atmosphere of dread in his first movement - and then in the third, he recapitulates the whole thing through a series of even more intense variations (the screw only tightens). Two other movements operate like interventions between these obsessive sequences - but while both are derived from the same folk-dance melody, they're only marginally less disturbing and raw. (Sometimes I think that if you didn't know from history that the world was falling apart in the first half of the twentieth century, you'd be able to guess it from Béla Bartók's quartets!) The Takács played with fierce commitment throughout, yet with impeccable technique, even through the quartet's eerie, otherworldly effects. The leap from Haydn to Bartók was a jarring one, and I couldn't argue that the Takács found any common ground between them. But as a demonstration of sheer virtuosity, the juxtaposition of the two was dazzling - this was not just two forms, but two separate worlds of music, and the Takács seemed to have a sympathetic mastery of both.

The final item on the program was Schubert's enormous Quartet No. 15 in G Major, a kind of follow-up to "Death and the Maiden" - which I heard just a week or two ago, played by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin. I must say the difference between the Takács and the Berliners was quite pronounced - the members of the Philharmonia seem to be playing in separate bubbles of technical perfection, while the members of the Takács were in constant rhythmic communication, and played with such passion that they had to mop their brows between movements.

As in a fair amount of Schubert, Quartet No. 15 has an air of greatness about it (particularly in its gigantic opening movement), but meanders to the point of slightly diminishing its own grandeur. The Takács couldn't do much about that slight sense of anticlimax, but the first movement was still everything it should be (the quartet's shivering tremolos were particularly memorable). And their playing remained dazzling throughout - which is a good thing, for if No. 15 meanders, it's still a marathon, and technically demanding for its entire length. Perhaps the players' resulting exhaustion precluded an encore - although the audience all but begged for one.  Well, maybe next time; we can hope, can't we?

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