Review: Takács Quartet

Feb. 28, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

The string quartet, as formulated by Haydn and Mozart, begins with a sonata allegro, followed by an elaborated instrumental aria, followed by a dance (almost always a minuet), concluding with an upbeat, usually cheerful finale. Beethoven began to turn that formula on its ear in the sixth and last of his Op. 18 quartets.

That Quartet in B flat major was a starting point for the Takács Quartet, which in its latest visit to the University of Richmond explored the structural and spiritual enlargement of the string quartet through Beethoven’s body of works and in the sole quartet of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn.

Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 6, starts off in tried-and-true classical form, but in its subsequent movements grows more explorative and more expansive in form, with abrupt changes of tempo and contrasts of mood. By its final movement, “La malincolia,” the composer speaks in a complex stream of consciousness.

His Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 133, written nearly 30 years after the Op. 18 set, compounds the complexity of form, at a vastly deeper spiritual and expressive level. Its seven sections, few of which are free-standing movements, form an epic soliloquy in tones ranging from quiet intensity to fevered animation.

The Takács – violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér – played both Beethoven quartets with deep concentration and close attention to tonal, textural and dynamic details, while also giving listeners the sense that they were hearing music made in the moment, almost improvised.

That speaks to long immersion in this music – Beethoven has been a cornerstone of this ensemble’s repertory for a generation – and to close interaction among the musicians.

Familiar as Beethoven is to the foursome, they are not static interpretively. To the robust collective tone and middle-of-the-road pacing long characteristic of the Takács’ performances, these readings added more pronounced accenting that gave more nuance to the contours of the music, and more variety in tone coloration, especially from violist Walther and cellist Fejér. There were even a few passages in which the group played with minimal vibrato, quite unlike the Takács of past years.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Quartet in E flat major, dating from 1834, was a fascinating centerpiece, similar in its rather free-form construction and sobriety to the late Beethoven quartet. The continuity of mood and expression heard in its first three movements is broken in a finale that seems to be from another work – at times from another composer, her brother, whose incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sounds to be an inspiration.

The Takacs played this rarity with the same attention to detail and spontaneity heard in the Beethoven quartets.

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