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Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Takács String Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola), András Féje (cello)). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 11.5.2009 (CC)

Beethoven: String Quartet in D, op.18/3
Haydn: String Quartets: in F, op.77/2; in D minor, op.103 (incomplete).
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat, op.44

That the Beethoven that began the concert was a success is doubly good news. In addition to being superb in and of itself, it acted as a taster for the complete cycle of Beethoven Quartets the Takács Quartet will present next season, between November 2009 and May 2010. The Takács’s recordings of Beethoven, for Decca, were unanimously received with critical praise and accolades (the group now records for Hyperion). In 2005, the Takács (the violist was then Roger Tapping; now, of course, it is Geraldine Walther) gave a memorable account of op.135 at the QEH; now it was the turn of the D major Quartet, op.18 no.3. 

The first thing that strikes one with the Takács Quartet is the sheer warmth of their sound, and so it was with the easy, almost gemütlich, opening of op.18/3. The opening semibreve seventh seemed like a stretch that might accompany a yawn, the ensuing quavers acting as a rather galant extension. Shading at the beginning of the development was exquisite, the whole topped by Edward Dusinberre’s sweet tone. It was second violinist Károly Schranz’s throaty tone that carries the initial melody of the Andante con moto, though, leading a reading that highlighted the music’s darker, questing qualities. The moment of duo-driven conversation, when Beethoven splits the argument between violins against viola and cello was beautifully done; the only real criticism comes in the form of weak viola trills from Geraldine Walther. The finale was a real Presto where the motifs were expertly passed between instruments. 

There was a downside, and one that had nothing to do with the Tákacs and everything to do with the Queen Elizabeth Hall – a low-level buzz that emanated from the speakers that are normally used for announcements. It was corrected after the Beethoven, but should not have been there at all. 

The two Haydn pieces were a revelation. The Takács chose to present the last of Haydn’s completed quartets (op.77/2 of 1799) and the torso that is op.103 (1803). In this way, the Haydn composition dates are actually on either side of the Beethoven!  The playing was a source of constant delight, the semiquaver theme of the first movement of Op. 77/2 thrown about with abandon, the return of the main theme at the movement’s recapitulation a sure cause for celebration. Haydn’s writing in the Menuet (really a Scherzo) is highly imaginative texturally, the prayer-like Trio acting in highest contast. The Andante attained the heights of expression (and contained a moment of pure magic in the entrance of the second violin and viola after the extended opening for first violin and cello only), and that level of intensity spilled over into the Vivace assai finale, the latter an expertly crafted movement that contained more depth than one might expect from the F-major home key. The use of the op.103 torso (it comprises an Andante grazioso and a Menuetto ma non troppo only) as a postscript meant the first part of the concert was 1 hour 10 minutes long. But it was worth it – the eloquent, smooth counterpoint of the Andante was part of a movement that contained significant depth, while the Menuetto and Trio were in perfect balance. 

The second half found the Quartet welcoming pianist Marc-André Hamelin for Schumann’s magisterial Piano Quintet. The quartet was more impressive than its pianist on this occasion. Hamelin sounded rather harsh in the louder passages, although he integrated better in the quieter sections, where the music flowed along well. It was Geraldine Walther’s viola that shone in the “In modo d’una marcia”, a desolate movement that spoke of controlled lyricism before exploding in unbridled passion. No doubting the virtuosity of all parties in the Scherzo (plenty of wit here, too), but it was the finale that caught all parties on top form, full of energy with warmer interludes and some simply superb string articulation in fugato. 

I have not seen a notification of a release of this piece with this combination, but both pianist and quartet are Hyperion artists. Hamelin has already recorded two discs of Schumann piano music for that company. 

As well as the many CDs of the Takács, it is worth noting that there is an excellent Decca DVD (074 3140), featuring Haydn (op.33/1, “The Bird”), Beethoven (op.59/1, “Razumovsky”) and Schubert (“Death and the Maiden”). You may also be glad to learn that the present concert was recorded for future broadcast by Radio 3, although no firm date was given.

Colin Clarke

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