A Wonderful Programme of Contrasts from the Takács Quartet

14/11/2017

Mozart, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn: Louise Williams (viola), Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz [violins], Geraldine Walther (viola), András Fejér [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.11.2017. (CS)

Takács String Quartet (c) Keith Saunders

Takács String Quartet (c) Keith Saunders

Mozart – String Quartet in B-flat major K.589, Prussian
Shostakovich – String Quartet No.11 in F minor Op.122
Mendelssohn – String Quintet No.2 in B flat major Op.87

This concert, the second of two successive performances at the Wigmore Hall by Associate Artists, the Takács Quartet, saw the four musicians joined by viola player Louise Williams for a stirring performance of Mendelssohn’s Second String Quintet.  The rich lyricism and, at times, quasi-orchestral textures of this final programme item formed a striking contrast to the dry crispness of the second of Mozart’s Prussian Quartets and to the desolate, fractured beauty of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet.

Mendelssohn’s string quintets are a fairly new discovery for me, and their melodic abundance and contrapuntal sophistication makes me wish I had encountered them many years ago.  The first Quintet in A major dates from 1826 when Mendelssohn was 17-years-old (though six years later he replaced the original minuet with an intermezzo); the second B-flat major Quintet was composed in 1845, and testifies to the astonishing fertility of the mature composer’s invention.

The tremolo which opens the Allegro vivace had the ferocity of a gun-shot, triggering a burst of musical ideas.  The textural energy was immediately transformed into more rhapsodic form in Edward Dusinberre’s rising arppegio-theme; surging crescendos and sudden pianos created a tremendous breathlessness and excitement, as material was rapidly exchanged between the five voices, with only momentary respites of relaxation and quiet.  The Andante scherzando retreated into one of Mendelssohn’s faery-lands, and here the sound was quite dry, the conversations brisk.  The grace of the persistent waltz lilt was constantly troubled by devilishly quick pizzicato, infectious trills and ornaments, and every detail was delicately but purposefully placed.  After such intricacy, the way the musicians achieved a sense of coherence and closure at the end of the movement was impressive, the sustained tone of Louise Williams’ viola and András Fejér’s gentle tread allowing the upper three voices to draw the threads together – though the sforzando diminished seventh, before the closing cadence, delivered one last shock!

The Adagio e lento was a lament of sorrow and portentousness; here the effect of the additional viola could be discerned and relished in the sombreness of the lower voices against the upper strings.  The Takács and Williams did not wallow in tragedy, though, and despite the slow tempo and dense textures there was no loss of energy, with Fejér’s bass notes and rising motifs providing strong propulsion.  As the individual lines became ever more rhythmically and decoratively elaborate, one could sense what Mendelssohn had learned from Beethoven, but, also, what Beethoven had learned from Haydn.  The Allegro molto vivace explosively blasted away any hint of sentimentality and here the tone was uplifting and bright as the players hurled themselves headlong through the virtuosity.  Despite the full textures – not ‘heavy’ as such, rather densely orchestral – which seem to anticipate Brahms, the playing was never overly emphatic or weighty: the music had room to breathe.

Airiness and transparency were also a feature of the Takács’ performance of Mozart’s Quartet in Bb K.589, at the start of the evening.  They were not afraid to offer a quite muted tone and timbre, and such restraint made the moments of lyricism all the more sweet.  Particularly in the first movement, it seemed to be not so much Classical ‘grace’ that the Takács were seeking; rather endless exchange in a conversation in which all were equals and the questions posed were never definitively answered.  There was not a sense of ‘conflict’; instead, I could imagine four individuals, infinitely curious, enjoying a philosophical debate.

The six Prussian quartets were commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm II, an accomplished cellist, and it is not far into the opening Allegro before the cello assumes ascendancy: Fejér’s high-lying line was stylish and lithe, floating on the soft textures, but the priority in this movement did not seem to be elegance, rather conversational lucidity – the counterpoint and cadences assumed a real presence in the structure – and fruitfulness: the development section seemed endlessly inventive.

The cello melody which opens the Larghetto was beautifully sotto voce: the phrases, sharply etched, were expressive but never indulgent.  Throughout the movement the textures were permeated by air, enabling striking contrasts between the cello’s resonant bass register and the brightness of the first violin’s lovely melodic forays, which Dusinberre played with beguiling urbanity.  He never presided over the ensemble with excessive dominance and the inner voices remained a strong presence, creating fluidity of movement.  The musicians’ self-discipline emphasised the preciousness of the music’s beauty, intimating fragility as well as profundity.  In the Menuetto, Dusinberre danced lightly, while the lower strings’ rising interjections burbled cheekily; the Trio was driven forward by the motor-like chuntering of the inner voices and the cello’s decorative spark, and the Allegro assai offered plentiful technical wizardry.

After the mischief of Mozart’s finale, the Takács immersed themselves in the melancholy of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet in F minor.  The Introduction established the emotional conflicts which the music embodies, between memory and mourning, as Dusinberre’s unaccompanied melody soared high – fragile but also suggestive of freedom – while the quiet darkness, sometimes dullness, of the lower voices exerted a draining counter-force.  Small motifs and snatches immediately conjured Shostakovich’s musical past, suggesting that this quartet is a repository of memories, both comforting and painful.

The eerie glissandi which culminate in whistling harmonics and the flitting repeated up-bows of the Scherzo blew like a wild wind, but, paradoxically, required enormous care and precision – reminding one of the transparency achieved in the preceding Mozart.  Gradually the texture fragmented and shrank, until only Geraldine Walther’s dark, dolorous C-string cry remained.  The Recitative: Adagio did not so much ‘speak’ as splutter and rage with angry frustration, as the double-stops erupted with frenzy until their fierceness drained, and the long drones faded.  The tempo was not extreme in the Étude but Dusinberre still flew through the perpetual semiquavers with the ease of a skater on ice, though the slippery whirling was pricked with agitation when transferred to the low cello.  The rhythmic incisiveness, strident colours, repetitive motivic interplay and registral extremes of the Humoresque brought to mind a Stravinskian sound-world: there was certainly little ‘humour’, even of the blackest kind.

Shostakovich’s Elegy, though, is aptly named: this four-minute movement – the longest of the seven, some of which last barely a minute – is the heart of the quartet, laden with grief.  One could almost physically feel the sobbing vibrations of the cello’s and viola’s unison C-string lament at the start, and if, when repeated at the close the unison was a little less than perfect, this only seemed to add to the terrible pathos.  In the final bars when Dusinberre passed the doleful theme to Károly Schranz, the latter’s muted repetition, diminishing to a fearful niente, was a haunting echo – one which reminded us that this quartet had been dedicated to Vasily Shirinky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet who had, from the Second Quartet onwards, premiered all of Shostakovich’s quartets.

The Finale brought us full circle, and to stillness, as the first violin’s aspiring E-string line climbed in sorrow, the tone sweet despite the closeness of the bow to the bridge.  It was as if the music’s spirit was floating tantalisingly into the ether, forever just beyond reach, as the violin’s high C slipped imperceptibly out of audible range.

Claire Seymour

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