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Takács Quartet - A Celebration
CD 1
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

String Quartet in C major, Op. 76 No. 3 Emperor (1796-1797)
Recorded at the Schubertsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria in August 1987a
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Serenade for strings (No. 13) in G major, KV 525 Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1787)
Recorded at the Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany in November 1997be
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in A major, Op. 18 No. 5 (1798-1800)
Recorded at St. Georges Church, Bristol, England in November 2002b
CD 2
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 American (1893)
Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London, England in August 1989a
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)

String Quartet No. 1 in E minor From my life (1876)
Recorded at the Evangelische Kirche, Honrath, Germany in Nov. to Dec. 1995b
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)

String Quartet No. 2 in D major (1881)
Recorded at the Evangelische Kirche, Honrath, Germany in Nov. to Dec. 1995b
CD 3
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Five Bagatelles, for 2 violins, cello and harmonium, Op. 47 (1878)
Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London, England in August 1989af
Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81 (1887)
Recorded at the Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England in November 1998bc
Hugo WOLF (1860 - 1903)

Italian Serenade, for String Quartet in G major (1887)
Recorded at the Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany in November 1997b
CD 4
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

String Quintet in C major, Op. 163, D.956 (1828)
Recorded at the Church Studios, Crouch End, London, England in December 1991ad
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)

String Quartet No. 4, Sz 91 (1928)
Recorded at the Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany in August to September 1996b
Takács Quartet (original line-up)a Gabor Takács-Nagy (violin); Károly Schranz (violin); Gabor Ormai (viola); András Fejér (cello)
Takács Quartet (present line-up)b Edward Dusinberre (violin); Károly Schranz (violin)
Roger Tapping (viola); András Fejér (cello)
Additional players: Andreas Haefliger (piano)c; Miklós Perényi (cello)d; Joseph Carver (double bass)e; Gabor Ormai (harmonium)f
DECCA 476 2802 [4CDs: 72:00 + 78:30 + 62:29 + 78:13]

 

The Decca label has released this four disc set of chamber music, entitled ‘A Celebration’, in recognition of the thirtieth anniversary season of the Grammy award winning Takács Quartet.

The Takács was formed in 1975 at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary by Gabor Takács-Nagy, Károly Schranz, Gabor Ormai and András Fejér, while all four were students at the Academy. The Quartets founder Gabor Takács-Nagy left in 1993 to pursue a solo career and the original violist Gábor Ormai sadly died in 1995. Two Englishmen joined the Takács Quartet, the violinist Edward Dusinberre in 1993 and violist Roger Tapping in 1995. Of the original ensemble, the Hungarian-born violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér remain.

At the time of writing this review the Takács has announced the departure of violist Roger Tapping. Geraldine Walther, principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, is to join the Quartet.

The Takács Quartet is renowned for several award-winning recordings on the Decca label. The double CD set of Beethoven’s three ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartets, Op. 59 and the Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 74, ‘Harp’ won an esteemed Grammy Award and the prestigious Gramophone Award for Best Chamber Performance in 2002.

Being a conspectus of the career of the Takács Quartet, ‘A Celebration’ features both the ‘original’ and ‘new’ Takács line-ups. Guest artists on this set include pianist Andreas Haefliger in a superbly eloquent performance of the Dvorák Piano Quintet, Op. 81 and cellist Miklós Perényi in the great C major String Quintet, Op. 163 of Schubert. A quick check has revealed that surprisingly much of the repertoire on this four disc set is not available in the catalogues at this present time.

Haydn String Quartet in C major, Op. 76 No. 3 'Emperor' (1796-1797)

This work is the third of the six Op. 79 String Quartets that Haydn dedicated to Count Erdody. They are acknowledged as being amongst his greatest string quartets. The work has become universally known as the ‘Emperor’ owing to the theme in the second movement which is the melody of the Austrian national anthem.

The original Takács Quartet specialised in Haydn String Quartets and perform the score with considerable taste and discernment. Especially well performed is the second movement Poco Adagio, Cantabile in a finely blended interpretation by the Takács Quartet with plenty of subtlety and wonderful expression. I would not wish to be without this version but my preferred recording is the celebrated account from the Kodály Quartet on Naxos 8.550314 c/w String Quartets Op. 76/1 & 76/2.

Mozart Serenade (No. 13) in G major for strings, KV 525 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik' (1787)

Written in 1787, the same highly creative year as his opera Don Giovanni K. 527, the loveable serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) has in modern times become Mozart’s most familiar and recognisable work, appreciated as much in popular culture as by classical music audiences. This jewel of eighteenth-century Viennese classicism may well have been intended merely as private entertainment for Mozart’s intimate circle of friends. Originally a five-movement piece, the Minuet that followed the opening Allegro is regrettably lost, leaving Eine kleine Nachtmusik in its familiar four-movement form.

The current Takács Quartet perform it in the version for String Quintet. They made the recording straight after their Bartók cycle in 1997. According to violist Tapping the Decca label knew that the Bartók set would be an artistic success but they were worried it wouldn’t sell too well and that the next release would have to be something popular; hence the release of the Mozart, Schubert’s Trout Quintet and the Wolf Italian Serenade all contained on Decca 4600342.

Augmented by the talents of double bassist Joseph Carver the Takács are simply sensational in this lightly instrumented version of the score. They play with an abundance of Mozartian grace and charm with a robust intensity when the score dictates. One cannot fail to be impressed by their admirably rhythmic and precise interpretation of the final movement Rondo, Allegro.

With larger forces using period instruments the version from The English Concert under the direction of Andrew Manze is the finest interpretation of Eine kleine Nachtmusik that I have heard. This wonderful recording is available on a BBC Music Magazine (Vol. 12 No.1) CD coupled with the Divertimento in F, K.138 and the Adagio in E for violin and orchestra, K.261. This includes an audio commentary to Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Andrew Manze; containing musical examples.

Beethoven String Quartet in A major, Op. 18 No. 5 (1798-1800)

New to the catalogues is the second instalment of the Takács’ Beethoven cycle, the six ‘Lobkowitz’ String quartets, Op. 18, available on the double set Decca 4708482. One of the fruits of his first creative period was Beethoven’s six Op. 18 quartets which were composed as a result of a commission by the dedicatee Prince Lobkowitz. Although thoroughly grounded in the Viennese classical world of Haydn and Mozart the scores continually display new attitudes, techniques and nuances of expression.

The String Quartet in A major is one of the most retrospective of the Op. 18 set and is often said to take most of its inspiration from Mozart’s A major String Quartet K. 464. The present Takács are thoroughly at home here and play as a single voice. Their interpretation of the cheerful opening Allegro movement is especially well played with indomitable spirit that illuminates every bar. My primary recommendation for these Opus 18 scores must go to the evergreen performances from the Quartetto Italiano, that were recorded between 1972 and 1975 and are available on a triple CD set on Philips 464 071-2.

Dvořák String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 'American' (1893)

During his stay in America from 1892 to 1895 Dvořák composed some of his finest works and in 1893 he completed his famous Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’. Dvořák spent his summer holidays at a Bohemian colony at Spillville, in Winneshiek County, Iowa where he felt immediately at home and found great happiness with his fellow countrymen. Under these favourable conditions Dvořák made a sketch of a String Quartet in just three days. He wrote at the end of the sketch: "Thanks to Lord God, I am satisfied, it went quickly." Within a fortnight, he had finished his so-called ‘American’ String Quartet. Dvořák’s score found instant acclaim and its enduring popularity is largely due to the lively rhythms, joyful mood, predominant major keys, appealing themes and a prevailing mood of contentment and happiness.

The Takács’ original Hungarian line-up had I feel a special affinity with Dvořák’s scores and they offer here a joyous performance from 1989 that can compete with the very best available. Their ardent expressiveness and dazzling rhythmic drive is most impressive and I particularly enjoyed their splendid interpretation of the folk-song like melodies and dance rhythms in the final movement. In a highly competitive market perhaps the most critically acclaimed account comes from the Hagen Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon 419 601-2 c/w the Cypresses and the Kodaly String Quartet No.2. A version that I have found especially satisfying and have grown to love is the 1994 performance from the Travnicek Quartet on Discover DICD 920248 c/w the String Quartet No.13 in G major, Op.106.

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 in E minor From my Life’ (1876)

With writing of extraordinary richness and exuberance Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor From my Life’ has been said to be the first ever truly programmatic String Quartet. The autobiographical narrative nature is revealed in the String Quartets’ subtitle ‘From my Life’, although the music can stand quite well on its own without one knowing the programme. Smetana felt the programme to be a private matter, however, he did provide written commentary. As to the choice of the Quartet medium, Smetana tellingly wrote "in a sense it is private and therefore written for four instruments, which should converse together in an intimate circle about the things that so deeply trouble me."

This 1995 recording of the Smetana and the Borodin String Quartets was the first CD made by the newly revived quartet with their new line-up, after the departure of Gabor Takács-Nagy and the death of violist Gábor Ormai.

This interpretation of the ‘From my Life’ Quartet is perceptive and intelligent in the quartet’s inimitable direct and polished style. I love the way the players with intense concentration and subtle control capture the very inward expression of the third movement Largo where Smetana recalls, "the happiness of my first love for a girl who later became my devoted wife." Together with this excellent version of the ‘From my LifeQuartet from the Takács Quartet my joint first choice is the acclaimed 1984 account from the Talich String Quartet on Calliope CAL 5690 c/w String Quartet No. 2 and Eight Polkas for String Quartet. I have also for many years enjoyed and would not wish to be without the 1977 analogue version of the ‘From my LifeQuartet from the Gabrieli Quartet on Decca 430 295-2 c/w Janáček’s String Quartet Nos. 1 and 2.

Borodin String Quartet No. 2 in D major (1881)

Borodin dedicated his to his wife. He composed the score in an amazingly short time of two months following a trip to Germany with Liszt. The D major String Quartet, that was written in one of the happiest periods of Borordin’s life, is essentially a love letter to his wife Ekaterina. In the score, especially in the first and third movements, the cello and violin engage in an extensive dialogue. It is an easy picture to imagine of Borodin, the accomplished cellist playing together with his wife as the violin.

The present Takács Quartet display their talents in an account that is brimming with character and with beautifully judged shaping of phrasing and dynamics. The famous slow third movement Andante: ‘Nocturne’ is excellently played with supreme confidence and considerable sensuousness. I would not wish to be without this account, however my preferred version is from the Shostakovich Quartet, at super budget price, on Regis RRC 1011 c/w String Quartet No. 1 in A major.

Dvořák Five Bagatelles, Op. 47 (1878)

The Five Bagatelles, Op. 47 can be viewed as providing a glimpse into the private world of Antonín Dvořák, relaxing amongst his friends. In 1878 Dvořák wrote this charming suite of pieces for the unusual combination of two violins, cello and harmonium. Most suitable for use in this chamber work, that was probably performed in the parlour of the home of Dvořák’s friend Josef Srb-Debrnov, the harmonium had become a hugely popular household instrument at the time as an alternative to the piano. The five movement score is performed by the original line-up of the Takács Quartet with a great sense of assurance and a surplus of joy and exuberance and gets my vote as a confident first choice.

Dvořák Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81 (1887)

Biographer John Clapham writes that the Piano Quintet in A major, "probably epitomizes more completely the genuine Dvořák style in most of its facets than any other work of his.” The work displays Dvořák’s highly personal form of expressive lyricism and a personal utilization of elements from Czech folk music. Characteristically those elements include styles and forms of song and dance, but not actual folk tunes as Dvorák created original melodies using an authentic folk style.

The Piano Quintet in A major is a work of lovely melodies, and exciting rhythms evoking the folk song and dance of Dvořák’s native Bohemia. The score has engendered a particular affection among musicians based largely on their respect for the solid musical structure.

In 1998 the present line-up of the Takács was joined by the pianist Andreas Haefliger for the Piano Quintet. They are in impressive form. Most listeners will respond favourably to the vitality of the third movement Scherzo and their secure grip on thrilling finale. The slow movement is perhaps somewhat wanting in the ideal measure of passion and the piano of Andreas Haefliger is focused too far forward for my taste. The unforgettable classic version by Clifford Curzon and the members of the Vienna Philharmonic String Quartet, that included Willi Boskovsky as first violin, recorded in 1962 on Decca 448 602-2 c/w Schubert Quintet in A major, Trout’, D667 is unassailably the first choice in this work; a recording that leaves all other accounts in its wake.

Wolf Italian Serenade in G major (1887)

The Italian Serenade is Wolf’s only successful chamber-music composition and started out as the first movement of a projected suite for orchestra. After completing fragments for two other movements, Wolf abandoned the project and adapted the first movement for String Quartet. The main subject in the score is a romantic melody that is derived from an Italian folk-song that used to be played in Italy on a pastoral instrument called the piffero, which was a type of oboe, now obsolete.

Recorded by the present line-up of the Takács Quartet in 1997 their delightful account of the Italian Serenade ideally displays musical sunshine and the quick rhythms of Italian dance. There are not too many version of the Italian Serenade in the catalogues and I have enjoyed the version from the Auryn Quartett since its release 1999 on CPO 8067269 c/w String Quartet in D minor and Intermezzo. However, the present attractive version is now my first choice.

Schubert String Quintet in C major, Op. 163 D.956 (1828)

Described as, "as one of the most pessimistic documents in all chamber music", Schubert wrote the score in 1828 for the unusual combination two violins, viola and two cellos. It is one of the true miracles of all nineteenth century music. At this time the composer was on the threshold of death, sick in body and almost devoid of spirit. Schubert searched deep into his soul but with the String Quintet in C major he could find only extreme darkness and despair.

In Schubert’s heartbreaking score the original Takács Quartet, with the assistance of additional cellist Miklós Perényi, offer an alert and sensitive account that gives beauty of tone and line together with a structural mastery. As much as I enjoyed this 1991 interpretation, the superbly refined and highly moving version by the Alban Berg Quartet, with Heinrich Schiff, on EMI Classics 5 66890 2, from 1982, has to remain my clear first choice.

Bartók String Quartet No. 4, Sz 91 (1928)

The Takács Quartet’s recording of Bartok’s six String Quartets received the 1998 Gramophone Award for chamber music and, in 1999, was nominated for a Grammy.

Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet, which violist Roger Tapping describes as, "one of the more approachable of the six. We have always been keen not to make it sound abstract, stressing the beauty of the slow movement, the humour of the pizzicato one… The last movement is not aggressive. It’s more a masque, a ritual of battles and this is what humanises it." Not surprisingly this best selling account of the Fourth has regularly been singled out by critics as one of the highlights of the renowned Takács Quartet’s recital programmes.

In this quartet we see Bartók growing even more abstract in thought and more concise in his technique. Almost approaching atonality, its contrapuntal flow entirely offsets its lack of obvious themes. In this 1996 recording from the present Takács line-up there is a tremendous conviction and vitality with remarkable playing throughout. Despite the merits of several top class versions the Takács cannot be equalled in this repertoire. Their double set of the complete Bartók String Quartets on Decca 455 297-2 is essential listening.

In conclusion, this is not just a run-of-the-mill compilation album but a wonderful celebratory collection, both in terms of the elevated standard of the musical content and the superb interpretations. Super sound quality as we have come to expect from Decca and the annotation is pretty good too. A top class release worthy of considerable praise. It would enhance any collection.

Michael Cookson



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