Takacs String Quartet; Works by Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich,Vancouver Playhouse, October 5, 2010

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Once again this year, the Takacs Quartet celebrated the opening of the Friends of Chamber Music concert season with playing of the highest distinction.  While typically concentrating on the ‘bedrock’ of European quartets from Haydn to Dvorak, the highlight of this concert was the introduction of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 (1944) alongside Beethoven’s Quartet No. 12, Op. 127.   While it might be thought that these two works have little in common besides their use of ‘theme and variations’ technique, the Takacs somehow brought them closer together with playing of a similar concentration and expressive intensity, allowing the emotional struggle underlying the former to be seemingly echoed in the latter as well.   For Shostakovich, the ‘pain’ was the human loss and suffering in the Second World War; for Beethoven, it was the more personal pain of increasing deafness.

The Shostakovich is a very early quartet but, emotionally, a vast leap forward from his first effort.  The Takacs brought out the architectural strength and unity in both the first and last movements in a very clean, incisive way.  Increased intensity brought both a radiance and a searing-edge to the heartfelt slow movement (really a violin solo over ground bass), followed by a perfectly-judged tempo for the ‘diabolical’ waltz.  This was not ‘heavy’ Shostakovich, just insightful music making that exposed the nerve ends of the music perfectly.

The Beethoven quartet is the first of the ‘late’ quartets and offers a work of much more complexity and emotional depth than its predecessors.  This is very familiar terrain for the Takacs, having performed most quartets in the full cycle for us over the past few years.  Their recording of these works (Decca 000387502; 3CDs, 2005) has received universal acclaim.

From the uplifting opening chords of Op. 127, the Takacs weaved their customary magic, with strong detailing, sophisticated dynamics and an unerring sense of when to pull it all together.  The apparent secret of their performances is their ability to know exactly when to lay back and concentrate on exposition, and when to push forward with frenetic intensity and dramatic power.  Compared to their recording, here I found their detailing slightly less transparent and their desire to push forward to resolutions more pronounced; a somewhat more insistent and ‘raw’ reading.   I think that is why the intensity of the Shostakovich seemed to carry over in a revealing way.

I should of course mention the strong performance of Haydn’s ‘Rider’ Quartet (Op. 74, No. 3) that began the concert.  Overall, the Takacs Quartet continue to impress as one of the world’s premier quartets, an ensemble with great intelligence and extraordinary musical instinct.

© Geoffrey Newman 2010