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Schubert and Britten: Takács Quartet Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20.05.2006 (TJH)

Schubert: String Quartet No. 13 in A minor D.804, “Rosamunde”

Britten: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94

Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden”

The most remarkable aspect of the Takács Quartet’s sound is its sheer consistency. Considering that only half of the group’s original line-up remains, and considering too that they have a very new recruit indeed (in the shape of violist Geraldine Walther), it is a remarkable achievement that every note the quartet plays still sounds as though it is produced by a single instrument. The four of them clearly enjoy performing with together, and they run a laudably democratic ship: Edward Dusinberre’s first violin is munificent to a fault, while original members Károly Schranz and András Fejér – on second violin and cello respectively – keep the quartet firmly grounded in its Hungarian roots. As instrumentalists, they are technically hard to beat; but as an ensemble, their dedication to their art makes listening to them like drinking a particularly satisfying cup of tea: warming, stimulating and deeply, deeply comforting.

These qualities proved in many ways ideal for Schubert, whose 13th and 14th String Quartets were performed on Saturday evening. Their take on the String Quartet No. 13 was highly introspective, a late Classical (rather than early Romantic) interpretation of one of Schubert’s finest masterpieces which was played with all the casual charm and intimacy of a group performing for their own enjoyment. The first movement, with its wistful, songlike melodies, had a sweetness to it that was never cloying, with Dusinberre’s melancholic line swaddled in his colleagues’ radiantly glowing accompaniment. So too with the lovely Andante, whose eponymous Rosamunde theme the four players treated with as much affection as Schubert clearly felt for it. To the deeply subdued Minuet – surely the least danceable dance ever penned – they brought sufficient energy to keep its morose subtext from dominating, lightening the mood considerably for a pretty Trio. Only the finale could have used a little more momentum, though the players made a great asset of its Classical lightness, sounding for all the world as though they were playing one of the Beethoven Op. 18s.

Momentum was never lacking in the Death and the Maiden quartet, however. To be perfectly honest, the first movement was rather more of a headlong rush than strictly necessary – there was hardly any let-up in pace from first note to last, robbing the amiable second subject of its characteristic swagger. The Theme and Variations second movement was also on the quick side, but its ghostly pallour and creaky-old-squeezebox of a theme played perfectly to the Takács’ strength as an ensemble. They gave tremendous shape and individuality to each variation too, with some great solo moments for each player. It was the finale, though, that was truly impressive – a hair-raising tarantella whose irrepressible brio boiled over in the final bars to ecstatic cheers from the audience.

 

The real highlight of the evening however, was Benjamin Britten’s Third String Quartet. Written in the final year of his life, Britten’s last major work is a chilly, austere piece, clearly influenced by Shostakovich’s late quartets and just as haunted by the spectre of death. Given that the Takács’ greatest gift is their superb teamwork, it was somewhat surprising that this spare and sullen work's unusual structure produced the most completely successful performance of the evening. The first movement, Duets, showcased the incredible chemistry between each player, an ever-shifting tapestry of partnerships and alliances that was as beautiful as it was stark. Dusinberre’s first violin had a chance to shine in the third movement Solo, soaring above a simple arpeggiated accompaniment before launching into a weird central section sounding like wind-up toys run riot. Best of all was the finale, a Recitative and Passacaglia that went from seesaw discords and soulful solos to an intense and haunting set of variations on a doggedly repetitive ground bass. Its close was affectingly peaceful, one of those supremely private moments that can only be experienced properly through the intimacy of live performance. As such, I suspect very few ensembles would be able to rival the Takács.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff


 

 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)