Solid Fare from Mozart and Mendelssohn, Goulash from Dvořák: the Takács Quartet at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival (4): Takács Quartet, Andreas Haefliger (piano), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 7.8.2011 (SSM)

Mozart: String Quartet in D major, K.575 (“Prussian”)
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.13
Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81

Although known mostly for their long list of award-winning recordings of Beethoven and  Bartók, the Takács Quartet certainly holds their own with other composers as evinced by this varied program at the Mostly Mozart Festival. As most chamber groups that have had long life spans, the Takács has intelligently chosen the right replacements over the years. The two remaining members of the original quartet founded in 1975 are Károly Schranz, second violinist, and András Fejér, cellist. The addition of Edward Dusinberre, an Englishman, as cellist and Geraldine Walther, an American, as violist has turned this Hungarian quartet into an international chamber group.

The Takács began the program with the first of Mozart’s three “Prussian” quartets written for the amateur cellist King Frederick William II of Prussia. The fact that the King’s playing skills were limited clearly shows in the cello part. It is rare in Mozart to have, as he has here in this quartet – or in any of his other works for that matter – three of the four movements all marked with the same tempo. Even the second movement marked Andante is only a few bars-per-minute away from the other three movements marked Allegretto. Rarely does the note length go beyond a sixteenth note (semiquaver) and only at the end of the slow andante is there a brief foray into thirty-second notes (demisemiquavers). One doesn’t need to read music to understand the simplicity of the cello’s part in these measures from the first movement:

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Mozart’s string quartets. The first thirteen – all written before 1773 – are little more than divertimenti. It wasn’t until 1782, after meeting Haydn and hearing his quartets, that Mozart approached the genre as a serious form. Even the six pieces dedicated to Haydn are problematic. Charles Rosen in his book, The Classical Style, writes that these works “struggled to assimilate Haydn’s language” resulting “in a constant alteration of awkwardness with his more natural grace.”  (Rosen devotes a chapter to the string quintets but not one to the quartets.)

However, the first “Prussian” quartet in the hands of the Takács may make me rethink my dislike – at least for this particular work. By not trying to find drama or complexity in the score as other chamber groups do, the Takács concentrates on the work’s inner spirit which is all sweetness and light, warmth and mellifluousness. Mozart was just entering his last musical phase where complexity became less important, past the point where he had to prove himself to anyone – particularly his father who died two years before these works were composed.

As precocious as Mozart was, it is hard not to be impressed by the early works of Mendelssohn. His twelve early symphonies written between the ages of twelve and fourteen are certainly more substantial than the symphonies that Mozart wrote at this age. It really wasn’t until Mozart was seventeen before he wrote his first mature symphony, the Twenty-fifth, known as the “Little G.”  Similarly, this Mendelssohn quartet, written at the age of eighteen, is more complex and mature than most of Mozart’s at the same age and only comparable to one other quartet of this period, Mozart’s D minor K.173 written when he was seventeen.

The first movement with a short opening adagio is followed by the main theme – a skipping motive so full of potential that it dominates the entire movement and is a major element in a varied form in the other movements, as well. The poor secondary themes of this Allegro Vivace  are left to fend for themselves. This skipping theme seems at times as if it were about to turn into a fugue but never does.  The meltingly tender reiteration of the main theme by the viola right before the coda was all I needed to hear to understand why Geraldine Walther was chosen as their violist. The second movement presents a theme quite similar to the first, particularly where the tempo changes from Andante to Poco piu Animato. The third movement is again the main theme – re-measured, re-noted but clearly there. The Presto is Mendelssohn’s hat-tipping to the opening instrumental recitative-like introduction to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the quartet’s inner fugue a reference to, perhaps, the Große Fuge.  Near the closing of this movement, the opening theme of the first is reiterated, as it is in Beethoven’s Ninth where earlier themes are replayed in a different context. The Takács performed this fiery work with a total commitment and complete solidarity that define a top-notch chamber group.

It is surprising how much music Dvořák wrote. He is, of course, known mostly for his warhorses, the “New World” Symphony, the Cello Concerto, the “American” Quartet and the Slavonic Dances.

But he had written over two-hundred works in his lifetime. (As a musical side-note: “If you don’t know whose romantic work is being played on your radio, your best odds are to guess that it’s Dvořák.”)  Like much of of Dvořák’s music this quintet is full of bravura, both saccharine and cloying at the same time. The opening measures with the cello playing a melody as the piano plays arpeggios is a very odd beginning. The movement does go on and on with not a tremendous amount to say. The second movement is a “Dumka,” a characteristic folk music form most famously found in the “Dumky” Trio, Opus 90, where all six movements are in this style and in the Slavonic Dances, Opus 72, No. 2. This movement of the quintet, neither interestingly structured nor memorable, comes close to the fifteen-minute mark, about fourteen minutes too long. The third movement Scherzo is thankfully brief and the Finale races, but not fast enough, to a quick wrap-up with a clichéd four note (“Dum Da Da Dum”) ending.

The Takács Quartet and Andreas Haefliger gave this piece their all and the audience was able to bring them back on stage only two or three times before the lights abruptly came on. Could the theater lighting technician have felt the same as I did?

Stan Metzger

This series continues at Lincoln Center through August 27. See Mostly Mozart Festival.