Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Takács Quartet

April 7, University of Richmond

A few years ago, Gramophone, the British classical-music magazine, polled a panel of experts to pick the world’s greatest symphony orchestra. The Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam came in first. A similar poll on string quartets quite likely would place the Takács, the Hungarian-bred ensemble now based at the University of Colorado, at the top of the heap.

I’m inclined to avoid such rankings – “greatest [whoever] I’ve heard lately” is tough enough in this era of musical over-achievers. I would say that an ensemble that tours with a program opening with Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, followed by Anton Webern’s “Six Bagatelles,” must feel reasonably secure about drawing a crowd on the strength of its reputation. And that it pays its audience the compliment of taking listeners’ discernment for granted.

(The Takács also tours with the six Bartók quartets in pairs of concerts, presented last season at the University of Richmond and reprised in January at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Compared with that, this may be its easy listening show.)

Violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér may be the ideal foursome for Op. 127 and the Webern bagatelles. Both require painstakingly exact balances among string voices – especially inner voices – and close attention to the finest details of articulation, dynamics and tone color.

Beyond technical considerations, both need performers who are deeply immersed in the distinctive styles and spirits of these works. Op. 127 is the first – and, some say, the knottiest – of the six quartets that Beethoven wrote in his last years. Like the other late quartets, it calls for voicings and balances that teeter between the elusive and the barely possible. (Webern’s employment of some of the same sounds nearly a century later was considered “experimental.”)

Even more challenging, perhaps, is Beethoven’s juxtaposition of highly sophisticated classical structure with folkish tunes and rustic dance rhythms. Does any other music ask players to think algebraically while clog-dancing?

In this performance, the Takács managed those technical and interpretive challenges expertly. The differentiation of fiddle tones in the first movement and earthy groove of the finale were just two of many highlights in a reading whose spontaneity was as striking as its exposition of fine points.

Spontaneity, remarkably, was the most distinguishing feature in the group’s performance of the Webern. This highly concentrated work – six movements in barely four minutes – often sounds to be all detail, with little or no sense of linear flow. The Takács conveyed linearity through careful treatment of dynamics and pacing of silence, the black (but textured, not flat) surface on which the composer paints his little starbursts and shafts of light.

Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 (“From My Life”), which closed the program, could easily have sounded anticlimactic after the Beethoven and Webern. Like Beethoven, Smetana was deaf when he wrote this music (although Smetana’s recollection of hearing was much fresher); and like Beethoven, Smetana freely and challengingly juxtaposed classical form with folk-dance rhythms, notably the polka. “From My Life,” however, proceeds along a pretty explicit story and time line, and an emotional trajectory from light to dark.

The Takács traced the work’s narrative and darkening of spirit quite effectively, and treated its folkish elements with appropriate verve. The ensemble’s sound was a bit too rich, to my ears, thickening musical textures as an idiomatically Czech interpretation would not. A few slurred notes and imbalances also detracted from the performance.