Takacs Quartet, Works by Beethoven and Mozart, Playhouse, December 9, 2014.

Photo: Ellen Appel

Photo: Ellen Appel

We have received a wonderful stream of illumination in our long-standing annual visits by the Takacs Quartet, covering much of the core repertory from Haydn through Dvorak, a superlative Beethoven cycle, and more recently the quartets of Benjamin Britten.  Nonetheless, there has been one composer that has been notably missing in it all and that is Mozart; it was just last year that we were able to see a performance of the composer’s “Hunt” Quartet.  As it turned out, the interpretation often stressed rhythmic punctuations in the spirit of Haydn – this is indeed one of Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets” -- while the feeling of the Adagio moved much deeper, perhaps to the same inner reaches that are found in the slow movements of Haydn’s profound Op.76 quartets or to Mozart’s sublime later string quintets.   The current concert actually featured the famous G-minor Quintet, K516, the companion to the two G-minor symphonies  -- works all identified with the composer’ deepest and most tragic expressions.  First, however, we began with the ensemble’s tried-and-true Beethoven.

The Takacs’ reading of Beethoven’s Op. 130 quartet has long received accolades, not least when it was issued in the ensemble’s Decca set of “Late Quartets” in 2005, and is known for its  angularity of expression as well as its illuminating integration of all Beethoven’s complex and fragmented utterances.   I think that I like this current performance even more than its predecessors.  It was perhaps less terse and uncompromising but it captured its underlying emotional flow even more surely.  There was an increased sense of wonder in the opening movement, but also a greater foreboding darkness, successfully integrating both with its tensile strength and establishing a seemingly more complex range of emotions and colour.  The middle movements provided telling hints of the composer’s emotional instability, eventually tightening the argument to a world where any trace of serenity vanishes. Then, the Cavatina: burnished, noble, flowing and subtle, never flinching from its message from beginning to end.  A buoyant and strongly detailed finale brought the work home -- as just the organic unity it should be. 

It was interesting to hear this performance just ten days after the young Doric Quartet had given us a very fresh and attractive interpretation of the same.  I am still taken by that but it only took a minute or two for me to recognize how much more serious and ‘big’ the Takacs are, having considerably stronger instrumental voicing and sinew. Perhaps there is little room for charm or tender intimacy throughout this work, but the Dorics did find it in many places, and their Cavatina was particularly moving in a more personal and gentle way.

Suppose that the Takacs Quartet took salient features of their approach to late Beethoven and applied them to the Mozart G-minor quintet.  I had never really thought of this possibility until this concert, never regarding late Mozart and late Beethoven as comparable objects.  Yet the inner detailing, the rhythmic tightness, and the raw strength of the viola projections in the opening movement suggested this to some degree.  The sforzandi of the following Minuet were unusually strong – like daggers thrown down, followed by an empty still.  And, yes, I could feel touches of late Beethoven (or even later) in the two Adagios, the outpourings of first violinist Edward Dusinberre definitely having a 19th C. projection.  All very intriguing but, at this point, I did think that there was something missing.  There was greater dynamic projection, with more obviously ‘romantic’ expressions of tragic feeling -- but not really a moment-to-moment tragic ‘story’ that unfolded with all the intimacy, fluidity and inevitably that we are used to.  In fact, I found the Takacs often tended to an emotional uniformity, not picking up the many quicksilver changes that are so important to the Mozartian narrative.  Part of this might have been that the admirable Edward Dusinberre was, at least on this evening, somewhat too generalized in his expression.   

It is far from unintelligent to consider a larger, more structural reading of this quintet, but perhaps I am spoiled by the classic performances of Arthur Grumiaux and friends, the Talich Quartet and the (now often-forgotten) Griller Quartet, which are so disarmingly strong in  Mozartian credentials that they are difficult to forget.  Here it is the lightness and buoyancy in expression, always intertwined with a tragic, often veiled, inner voice, which makes these readings so fluid, cohesive and, indeed, overwhelming.  One thinks: How is it that music that has so much celestial radiance and beauty can be this tragic?   In the finale, the Takacs carried on their approach with consistency, but I found the phrasing somewhat too clipped, with too many accents.  I do think that one needs a longer legato line and more pliability of texture and phrase to take us up the mountains and down the valleys to our eventual resting place.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014