Takács String Quartet: An All-Beethoven Concert, Playhouse, December 4, 2016.

It has now been over a decade since the Takács Quartet completed their landmark recording of the complete Beethoven quartets for Decca. In the interim, they have made some adventurous forays elsewhere – for example, the Benjamin Britten quartets and some early Shostakovich – but it is increasingly clear that Beethoven’s spirit is always with them.  In the past two seasons, we have already heard the two quartets, Op. 130 and Op. 59, No.3 again, both displaying a slightly different face than before. When they arrived this year with an All-Beethoven programme, featuring one each of early, middle and late quartets, one had to think something was up.  Was a new cycle in the making? Since the Takács Quartet is one of the most esteemed string quartets now with us, and the first to be inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame, this would clearly be an event to look forward to.

I was impressed with these two most recent Beethoven traversals. In comparison with their recordings and live performances of a decade ago, the Takács seemed to open out more interpretative space to complement their characteristically strong detailing and rhythmic energy.  The slow movements of both Op. 130 and Op. 59, No. 3 tended to more subtlety and lyrical sophistication, while the more decisive statements of other movements of both quartets tended to greater weight and projection. The famous finale of the latter work could be hardly more intensely propelled than it was the last visit.

Since there were interpretative differences apparent at this concert too, and a brief reception was being held right after the concert, I thought that I might actually dangle the question out to the ensemble on just what they thought their important recent adjustments were. Since first violin Edward Dusinberre has just released his book Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets, I thought who better to talk to. But Dusinberre suggested, in a most genial manner, that he didn’t fully recall how they used to perform these works, and it was actually my role as critic to tell them what the differences were.  In some ways this response was less surprising than one might think. Valentin Berlinsky of the Borodin Quartet used to say the same when asked about the tonal adjustments in that ensemble over time: ‘We cannot really describe the quality of our sound.  It is the job of music critics to describe our sound.’  One thing that the violinist did reveal is that their Decca recordings (2001-2005) were made under a rather tight schedule (e.g., three Op. 18 quartets in a day) so that the ensemble could not be as adventurous as they might have wanted to be. The recordings serve as a reference, but in no way a perfect reference. I fortunately did hear their live performances from that period too – but more on this discussion later.

Having seen this ensemble on a yearly basis for decades, I must start by saying that that their execution in the current outing was at times less pristine than it usually is. Some intonation issues and unwanted traces of brusqueness could be noted at the outset, though their sterling voicings and sense of integration were present as always. I think Op. 127 was a very fine performance overall, finding slightly more space and majesty in the opening movement and even greater concentration and variety in the Adagio.  I enjoyed the long paragraphs of rhapsodic flow in the latter, the touch of ‘craziness’ in the middle and, particularly, the magic at the end of the movement, where the violin and cello project their inward thoughts over the pizzicato. The Scherzando had a truly rustic feel, puckish with tight accents, often conjuring up the image of an abandoned dance. I always think it is difficult to project the Finale with (exact) Beethoven character but here it was deftly and knowingly negotiated, possibly evincing greater interpretative sophistication than previously. Apparently, they had not performed Op. 127 for some years and a freshness of discovery showed.

The performances of the other two quartets were less automatically convincing, since they often had a clipped, emphatic quality that I found a little hard-edged. Undoubtedly, the ensemble always generates a strong tonal and rhythmic sinew -- put in place by the active participation of all the voices -- but here they may have sometimes been too dynamically unvaried and insistent.  Dusinberre was at pains to point out to me that Beethoven wrote his Op. 18, No. 5 just after examining the manuscript of Mozart’s Quartet, K. 464, but my guess was that their model was Haydn. Of course, this quartet is one of the ‘Haydn Quartets’ but the very strong accents and sharp dynamic contrasts of the opening Allegro seemed to indicate this. On the other hand, I enjoyed the ‘classical’ quaintness of the Menuetto, perhaps fostering a touch of the galant and also bringing insight into exactly how the musical lines play off each other. Similarly, the Andante cultivated a scaled-down rustic feel, and moved through its variations with fine communication and subtlety.  However, the finale was a little too forceful and roughhewn for my taste. Of course, it all depends on how you see Beethoven – certainly complex and fully wound up here – but I did find the link to Mozart more remote.  There were relatively few moments of unalloyed ease sneaking through.

Photo: Aini Bhatti

Photo: Aini Bhatti

The Op. 95 (‘Serioso’) is undoubtedly a very ‘tight’ work, and constitutes a remarkable transition piece between the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets and the Late Quartets. The Takács were fairly terse in their excellent earlier recording, but they are even more uncompromising now, with a more emphatic underlining of the voices and greater weight overall. The Allegro was certainly jagged and stabbing, with the cello literally growling at some points. Even the vibrato seemed to be lightened in the middle movements to make their lines stand out more starkly.  The last movement was again volcanic in its projection, highlighting the agitato marking in the score. 

I have no reason to believe that listening to this last quartet should be a comfortable experience, yet I have recently heard performances that incorporate a more yielding narrative. When I asked Dusinberre about this, I first presented the idea that the Takács’ strong, objective approach was aiming at greater authenticity. The violinist did not particularly think that was the case, though when talking about some possibilities for introducing more lyrical exploration into this work, his characteristic assessment was ‘You can’t really do much there, nor there, etc.’ When I mentioned that the playing seemed a little more emphatic and unremitting now, he looked intrigued, and answered, ‘The only thing I can think of is that the group has recently been working on sharpening and strengthening the dialogue between the voices. For example, if I push forward a phrase, András will answer me more immediately and decisively, and the others will follow suit.’ Indeed, that’s very much in line with what I noticed. In any event, it is quite remarkable to talk with musicians that have such an unwavering commitment to the internal integrity of these great scores, and I thank Edward Dusinberre for his time and insight -- all very fascinating.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016