THE TAKACS QUARTET BRING GREAT THOUGHT TO MENDELSSOHN AND SHOSTAKOVICH

Takács Quartet: Music of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, Playhouse, December 12, 2017.

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The Takács Quartet have presented many intriguing programmes in their annual pilgrimages to Vancouver, but the current one stands right at the top of the list. It featured the ensemble’s first ventures into both the Mendelssohn quartets and the late quartets of Shostakovich, as accompanied by the first of Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ Quartets. Perhaps there was a darker theme linking all the works: Mendelssohn’s 6th and final quartet was written just after the death of his sister Fanny and just before his own demise. Shostakovich’s 11th quartet was written in homage to the Beethoven Quartet’s recently-departed second violinist Vasily Shirinsky, while the Mozart quartet K. 575 was also written in the composer’s final years. The purity of the playing in the Shostakovich was quite stunning while I doubt I have heard a finer performance of the Mendelssohn. The Mozart had an unusually wistful quality. All the performances evinced the greatest thought in preparation.

If there was ever a place for impassioned histrionic response, it is in the Mendelssohn Quartet No. 6, and a good variety of past performances have tried to paint its frenzied opening, and much of the rest of the work, in truly purple colours. Why I enjoyed the Takács’ performance so much is that it resisted this temptation: it built the work’s intensity so artfully, always finding a very strong sense of determination in the music’s progress, but allowing room for a flourishing lyricism to mix with the abandoned frenzy. The quartet was able to open out considerable musical space and detail in both the first and last movements precisely because they did not hurtle them along; nonetheless, they still succeeded in building an overwhelming frisson at their close. At its more considered pace, I thought the opening Allegro was just firmer, richer and more varied than I had previously heard, especially in finding room for moments of lyrical repose and warmth. This allowed the buoyant succeeding movement to be given more uncompromising thrust and sinew – the sense of dogged determination always present. The Adagio was the highlight, starting from tender, innocent fragrances reminiscent of the composer’s earliest quartets, building to a weighty, impassioned climax in the middle before retreating to the type of radiant sweetness that only Mendelssohn could know. Here the perception of the composer’s style was extraordinary. The finale had keen pacing and inevitability, the group letting everything out at the end with splendid electricity. Mendelssohn’s last quartet is revealed as a great work not only because it expresses a unique passion springing from personal loss, but also because it synthesizes many of the special feelings and nuances that identify the composer’s art as a whole.

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The Takács have presented the 2nd and 3rd quartets of Shostakovich in previous years, but their move to the 11th on this occasion enters the rarefied world of the composer’s late quartets. As with late Beethoven, the number and form of the composer’s movements are subject to innovation, there are new instrumental effects, and this relatively short 11th quartet is played continuously over its seven movements. Written immediately after Shirinsky’s death, it is natural to see an unearthly countenance in its somber textures, hinting at burning feelings just below the surface. What I liked about the Takács’ approach is that, more than most treatments, it stripped back the metaphysical undercurrents, and just concentrated on the work’s ingenuity and beauty as music per se. Working discerningly off the tonal centers and harmonic synergies created by the dominating major and minor seconds, and exhibiting superb dynamic control at very soft volumes, I have rarely encountered a purer and more economical distillation of this musical ‘whole’. All the carefully placed swoops and slides and the ominous two and three note phrases were there, alongside the other manifestations of fragility of spirit, but all of these seemed to just flow into each other seamlessly; one gleaned their importance more within an overall structural concept than in their role as pained subjective utterances. I have enjoyed performances that do portray the work as an inexorable flow of deep feeling, ending in a distilled state of bleakness, but here I was left more in awe at the work’s structural unity, impeccable musical balance, and sheer ingenuity. The Takács brought force to the greatness of this late quartet in terms of the ingredients of its pure musical construction.

The concert opened with a fine performance of Mozart’s D major Quartet K. 575.  I have sometimes doubted that the Takács’ nervous intensity and sharp accenting were the most natural fit with the ease and fluidity of Mozart’s phrasing, for all the detail and structural integrity they achieve. Nonetheless, I found this a particularly thoughtful and individual reading: the group seemingly drew on a parallel between this work and the great String Quintets (K. 515/6), both of which give strong emphasis to the sinewy lower voices.  In K. 575, it is the cello that gets extraordinary prominence, largely to satisfy King Frederick William of Prussia who commissioned the work and was himself a cellist. There is a strong role for the viola too. The motion of the opening Allegretto immediately took me to the quintets, rhythmically alert but finding a fine ebb-and-flow to propel the movement forward with a wistful feeling. Sometimes half-lights were uncovered, while András Fejér’s expressive cello often provided the lyrical lift to the phrasing. An awareness of the suspending rise and fall in phrases, harnessed to thoughtful dynamic control, also yielded a perceptive Andante.  The cello plays a leading role in the closing Allegretto, and this movement found patient and beautiful detailing from all concerned, a fine sense of narrative, with wistful allusions sometimes moving in the direction of Haydn’s last quartet Op. 104.

Not all Takács appearances have provided quite the bounty that this one did. There was new repertoire to relish and each performance was absolutely individual. As I have emphasized before, it is rare to see an ensemble that so consistently seeks to find the coherence and greatness of each work on its own terms.

© Geoffrey Newman 2017