Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Takács weaves its magic with Marc-André Hamelin

The Takács Quartet in action

You can tell a lot about a string quartet from its moniker, and the fact that the Takács Quartet (above) named itself simply "the weavers" (the meaning of takács in Hungarian) I think tells you something about their essential humility.  That this humbleness is yoked to the highest level of artistry, however, only makes its gentle restraint all the sweeter. Indeed, the Takács Quartet seems almost self-effacing when its members enter the concert hall and gaze at each other (like craftsmen long familiar with one another), before quietly raising their bows.

And the music begins.

Hub Review readers already know that I probably cherish ensemble chamber music above all other forms. And let's just say last Friday's Celebrity Series concert reminded me why.  The Takács delivered sterling performances of three deep musical statements - Haydn's String Quartet in D Major (Op. 76, No. 5), Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, and especially Shostakovich's sprawling Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 - played with the virtuosic Marc-André Hamelin (another Hub Review favorite) on the keyboard.

The Shostakovich was the rarity, but first I'll consider the Haydn and Schubert, two highly opposed emotional essays which the Takács negotiated in different keys of brilliance.  Haydn's D Major quartet showcased two of this great composer's opposing musical "faces" - by turns he seemed a melancholy sage and a witty raconteur.  The melancholia was most pronounced in the work's famous Largo, whose melody here unfurled like a gorgeously prolonged sigh; in contrast, the opening Allegro features a clever musical feint into another key, and the final Presto is one long delightful joke: it opens with the kind of flourish one normally associates with the close of a movement, then struggles and fusses to actually end with variation after variation that amount to an endlessly extended musical farewell; then suddenly, it's over.

It takes not just virtuosity but maturity, as well as an unstated familiarity between a quartet's players, to bind all these different facets together - but then Takács has precisely that, in spades. Violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér are the two original members of the group, and they remain its anchors and engine, seemingly grounding the more spectacular talents of lead violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther.  Dusinberre may have the most sweetly eloquent high end of any violinist I can think of; meanwhile a weathered Romany fire still smolders in Walther's bow.  It's a winning combination, and seemed to limn every emotional detail of the Haydn.

Then came the Schubert - and, of course, tragedy.  Written as the composer's health continued its decline, and drawn from his own incidental music for the play Rosamunde as well as his setting of a Schiller lament, the work has a deep sense of having been re-worked, of tapping once more into familiar veins of pleading hope and encroaching despair.  Even the minuet is somehow fraught with dismay - the melancholy only lifts (slightly) in the closing rondo, which has little in common with what has come before.  And as with much Schubert, the quartet is both compelling and somewhat awkwardly structured - we are a world away from Haydn's sense of knowing control (even over heartbreak).  So it was no surprise the Takács streamlined things a bit here and there (with few repeats), but impressed nonetheless, particularly in the opening, almost tremblingly fraught Allegro.

Finally came a far more striking shift in tone - to Shostakovitch's half-mad, but truly great, Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57, which closed the evening in both high and disturbing style, with Marc-André Hamelin (a local boy - these days - whom we just don't hear enough from) on the keyboard.  The work is sprawling, and as it was written just prior to the Nazi invasion of Russia, channels with more than usual power that distinctive note of destructive insanity that's typical of the twentieth century, and which informs so much of Shostakovich's oeuvre.  Here the piano echoes with a cold chime (the musical lines are often spare melodies doubled an octave apart) that seems to hover over, and eventually descend upon, the more distracted scribble in the string parts.  These often quote, or hint at, earlier composers (particularly Bach in the second movement fugue), but are eventually overcome by a familiar Shostakovich motif: a strange, evil itch that scratches happily through the third movement, but then is overcome by a sadder self-awareness in the final Allegretto.

It's a stunning statement - a terrible vision of civilized history on the verge of destruction - and a brilliant exemplar of the sense of historical embedment which makes Shostakovich so special (and which distinguishes him from those many modernists who wound up in Shangri-Las like Hollywood). And these performers simply played the hell out of it.  Hamelin sometimes seemed dominant (but then the piano, one senses, should sound more loudly than the strings, as was the case here), but also proved a responsive ensemble player, particularly in the opening movements.  The Takács, for its part, was at its most poignant in the finale, which is riven with mournfulness.  It was a remarkable close to this remarkable concert, whose only real disappointment was the fact that there was no encore.

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