Homecoming Weekend: The Takács Quartet at the University of Maryland, November 12, 2011
The Takács Quartet returned to the University of Maryland Saturday night! That warranted an exclamation point because the Takács played for Terp Nation many times at the Inn and Conference Center and in the old halls in Tawes, but they had not previously set foot in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2001. I began going to classical concerts with my parents at the University of Maryland when the Takács were coming twice a year, and I’m guessing many of those present Saturday night remembered those concerts too.
The personnel of the quartet have changed. Early concerts brought the first, all-Hungarian lineup to UMCP, but now the only original members are second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér; Edward Dusinberre, who joined in 1993, mans the first violin spot, while Geraldine Walther, a 2005 addition, womans the viola position. Yet the Takács approach has remained consistent: They’re four musicians having a dialogue and exploring a work, rather than a monolithic organ of unified super-precision sound. Sometimes on Saturday their tones aren’t perfectly matched, and there were a few slipups of ensemble, sloppy phrase endings, and the like. But the musical conversation led to some penetrating readings that reaffirmed the Takács’ status as one of the most interesting quartets of our time.
Some quartets that play Leoš Janáček’s Quartet no. 1, the “Kreutzer Sonata,” focus on creating a cinematic, sweeping feel to the proceedings, which depict a wife’s seduction and her husband’s vengeful murder; that strategy sometimes lends a glossy quality to a raw work. In the Takács’ hands, the drama felt uncomfortably intimate, with Janáček’s contrasting gestures in the first movement seeming to undercut each other and create additional unease. The seduction theme of the second movement strutted awkwardly, like the hiccup of a blustery drunk, yet its forward progress felt inexorable as well, making this a bluntly effective suitor.
Dusinberre gave a quick talk before the Janáček, with musical examples and funny jokes, in which he explained why the Takács have decided that the murder is actually depicted in the third movement, rather than the fourth as our program notes had it. They played it with conviction, making it vivid and violent but also teasing out the uncertainty and remorse, then provided further perspective on the goings-on in the finale. Throughout, the music felt slippery and surprising, but also devastatingly powerful.
Benjamin Britten’s first quartet, which followed the Janáček, was the least musically interesting of the three quartets on the program and got the weakest performance. Britten’s first and second movements don’t have much to engage the ear other than rough shifts in texture, and the supposed-to-be-ethereal high harmonics of the first movement, underpinned by plucks of the cello, go on for too long and were rendered somewhat unevenly by the Takács. The third movement, though, carved out an affecting lyrical path from stony monoliths of sound, the Takács showing they can make a big unison noise when desired, and the finale threw off the seriousness of the preceding movement and scampered around cheerfully.
After intermission, the Takács began Maurice Ravel’s string quartet at a little quicker tempo than normal, eschewing French langour for a gentle flow forward; their playing seemed to smile gently and affectionately at the wit of Ravel’s writing, which has rarely seemed so tangible to me in this quartet. They emphasized the tempo shifts in the second movement, teasing out a sense of play here as well. The third movement had a classical poise, flickering between light and shadow without being dominated by either, and the Takács had plenty of well-mannered fun in the finale, yet remained poised and coolly commanding. Though the Takács have visited other venues in the DMV in the interim, Saturday’s concert felt like a homecoming, at least to me. Let’s hope they return soon.
Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey. Well, he reviewed this concert, but I cannot find the link to his review on the Washington Post’s horrible redesigned site. When I can find it, I will link to it. (Spoiler alert: He wasn’t as impressed as I was.)
OCCUPY THE PROGRAM NOTE
Taking a title from Jeremy Denk’s blog, I would like to call your attention to this paragraph of the previously mentioned program note describing the Janáček quartet:
In Janáček’s quartet, the first movement may be interpreted as an introduction to the unhappy woman, while the second movement can be seen as a description of the seduction of her by the violinist. A brief quotation from Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata in the third movement points to the performance of the work in Tolstoy’s story, and the torture and murder of the woman may be found in the agitated passages of the fourth movement.
Extreme emotional distance can be created in the audience through the use of the passive voice by the program note writer. Still, you have to forgive when the program notes also reproduce Britten’s correspondence upon getting the commission for his first quartet from DMV classical music hero Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge:
Mrs. Coolidge came over to see us in the afternoon—and has definitely commissioned me to do a quartet for her—to be played next September over here! Short notice and a bit of a sweat to do it so quickly, but I’ll do it as the cash will be useful!
Exclamation points warranted indeed! Get that money, B-Squared.
The macro reason I enjoy classical music is because my parents do – for a while, I didn’t realize that not every family had a policy regarding whether Bruckner will ever be played in the house (answer: no). But the micro reason is two concerts by the Takács Quartet that I heard when I was about 12. Back in that day, student tickets to concerts at UMCP were $3, meaning my parents were happy to bring me along when they had a subscription concert, and the Takács were coming to campus twice a year for some reason unknown to me. I would sit in my random seat in the back of the auditorium before intermission, then move up to sit with one of my parents for the finale. They had been subscribing for a while and were thus in the third row, so if a good performance was occurring, I was right there hearing it.
One concert featured Haydn’s Rider quartet, a Bartok opus lost to the recesses of my mind, and Brahms’ first piano quartet. The whole concert was pretty amazing, but I remember specifically feeling like the “Hungarian” finale of the Brahms had the energy of a freight train and was coming straight for me. The rondo episodes felt like oases in which I could relax before the storm started again. It was an intensity I had not heard in music up to that point, and I wanted to feel more of it.
The concert that made me want to understand music more, though, came later. The program-closer this time was Beethoven’s Op. 59, no. 2, whose finale famously begins in the “wrong” key of C major before modulating with a cruel inexorability into E minor. When the quartet began blasting away at Beethoven’s choppy finale-opening theme in C, I felt deep in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong – it was a physical feeling, not an intellectual one – and when the movement closed with its emphatic E minor it was a surprise I could nevertheless hear coming. Figuring out why that happened was my first step on the road to classical music, and I’ll always be thankful to Schranz, Fejer, and the other two original members of the Takács (Gabor Takács-Nagy and Gabor Ormai) for giving me the emotional jolt necessary to stimulate that intellectual investigation.