Ohlsson and the Takács in a Transcendent Elgar Piano Quintet

15/04/2016

Beethoven, Webern and Elgar: Takács Quartet, Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 13.4.2016 (BJ)

Beethoven: String Quartet in C major, Op. 59 No. 3, “Razumovsky”
Webern: Langsamer Satz
Elgar: Piano Quintet, Op. 84

Given that Seen and Heard affords reviewers the luxury of not having to work to a deadline, I could have waited a few days before writing this review, to allow the incandescent impression made by this concert to fade to a more commonplace pitch compatible with level-headed criticism.

But I knew it wouldn’t, nor would I have wished that it would. The account of Elgar’s Piano Quintet that closed this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert was a performance of such transcendent quality as a lucky listener may hope to find him-or-herself privileged to experience perhaps once in a decade, or at even longer intervals.

It demands therefore to be reviewed while still fresh in the reviewer’s mind. The critic’s responsibility is to be not level-headed but passionate, and at all costs to hold any fading of his responses at bay. I still vividly recall how bowled over I was when I first became acquainted with Elgar’s quintet in the recording that the great John Ogdon, who was snatched away from us by deteriorating health and a too early death, made with the Allegri Quartet in the early 1970s. But even that superb achievement was outshone by Garrick Ohlsson’s collaboration with the Takács Quartet. It made unmistakably clear that, from the bare textures and quirky rhythms of the start—by way of the eloquent textures of the Adagio, through to the buoyant nobility and grandeur of the finale—that this is a work that stands on at least equal terms alongside the few other masterpieces in the piano-quintet genre, such as those of Schumann, Brahms, and Dvořák.

This result was partly due to Ohlsson’s command of tone and nuance at every dynamic level, stretching from the faintest of pianissimo whispers, to a thunderous yet still mellow realization of Elgar’s most extreme demands for fortissimo and triple-forte grandioso and largamente chordal passages. But no less important was the seemingly instinctive understanding between him and the quartet. Under Edward Dusinberre’s assured leadership, the combination of piano and strings was as flawlessly integrated, with texture at once as clear and as perfectly balanced, as I have ever found it to be.

But just as in the Takács’s Haydn, Debussy, and Beethoven program a year ago, the strongly individual differences in character of sound between first violinist Dusinberre, second violinist Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér were a major element in the effect of the performance, especially in the slow movement of the Elgar, which offers second violinist and violist an unusual wealth of opportunities to shine. Schranz and the wonderfully gutty-toned Walther seized them eagerly, while Fejér supplied a rock-solid basis for the ensemble as well as sounding warm and solid in the upper registers.

The first half of the program had already offered proof of these remarkable musicians’ quality. It was interesting to observe the difference in their handling of vibrato, relatively restrained in Beethoven’s third “Razumovsky” Quartet (in which Dusinberre’s marksmanship made light of the challenge set by the composer’s frequent exposed high notes), more lavish in Webern’s early (1905) Slow Movement, which perhaps needs more in the way of special pleading, and which emerged under the Takács’s hands as a kind of music more generous in spirit than the austere self-discipline familiar from the works of this composer’s maturity.

Two further virtues should be saluted. For once, Beethoven’s fugal finale, which many quartets take at an insanely vertiginous speed, was on this occasion quite exhilarating enough yet at the same time perfectly sane. The tempo marking, after all, is merely Allegro molto, not Presto, and the Takács players are secure enough not to need displays of vulgar excess to take their audience with them. And similarly, in the etherealized barcarole that is Beethoven’s second movement, cellist Fejér made the alternations between forte and piano in his pizzicato bass clear in comparably unobtrusive manner; one felt that he simply knew the music, and knew it well enough not to feel obliged to be didactic in order to convey its message to his listeners.

An emphatic “bravo” to all concerned in this marvelous concert.

Bernard Jacobson

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