Even at Less Than Their Best, Takács Gets to the Heart Of Three Twentieth-Century Quartets

 United StatesUnited States  Janáček, Britten, Ravel: Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz, violins; Geraldine Walther, viola; András Fejér, cello), presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 4.12.2011 (HS)

Janáček: String Quartet No. 1
Britten: String Quartet No. 1
Ravel: String Quartet in F Major

Usually a model of technical proficiency, the Takács Quartet hit a few bumps in the road in its concert Sunday at Hertz Hall. Despite some moments of queasy intonation or overzealous pizzicato playing, the Colorado-based quartet zeroed in on the core musical messages in seminal quartets of the twentieth century, written by three composers making their first forays into the genre. In the end, each quartet finished strong, making for a satisfying afternoon.

Unusually chatty, lead violin Edward Dusinberre picked up a microphone to introduce each piece, beginning with a lengthy expostulation on the opener, Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1. Subtitled “After Tolstoy’s The Kreuzer Sonata,” the music follows the melodramatic arc of the story, which centers on the musical bond between a woman violinist and her pianist while playing the Beethoven violin sonata. Her husband, suspecting them of having an affair, becomes convinced of it as the musical conversation turns hot and heavy (as it does in the piece). He kills her.

The Takács, which has its roots in Hungary, has always shown a particular affinity for Eastern European twentieth-century music. And indeed, they brought out the conversational, and ultimately confrontational, interweavings of the music, despite some intonation issues. The near-quotations from Beethoven in the third movement, with their antique quality, contrasted nicely with slashing interjections from the other instruments. The finale, which sort of summarizes the whole story, had the best integration of music and storytelling.

Dusinberre described Britten as feeling lonely and out of place during 1941, living in the United States as World War II engulfed his native England. Himself born in Leamington Spa, England, Dusinberre described the music of the composer’s String Quartet No. 1 as surprisingly sunny, especially in the quick Allegro con slancio second movement and the Molto vivace finale. The long, slow Andante that separates them, however, contains music of undeniable yearning, and more than whiff of the sea that so fascinated this composer. More than a few moments reminded me of the “Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes (which he actually started writing the following year).

That slow movement was a treasure, as the quartet played it with unalloyed calm and hushed beauty. The opening movement, however, with its high-lying harmonies for the violins and viola, seldom coalesced into solid intonation. The slow movement, and the joie de vivre of the finale, however, more than made up for those moments of unease.

After intermission, the quartet tore into Ravel’s Quartet in F Major, whose harmonies have so influenced jazz composers since the piece was completed in 1903. In this performance the second movement’s pizzicato chords formed stomping rhythms, played with such violence that, once again, intonation suffered. It’s fine to dig into the music, but a little more control would have made it much better. Once again, though, the quasi-Rondo finale (Vif et agité) erased all the excesses that preceded it with fleet playing that made a smiling romp of the recurring tune.

After apologizing for the quartet’s cancellation of a November concert, their first of three in Cal Performances’ 2011-2012 season, Dusinberre introduced the encore, the trip-lightly finale of Haydn’s Op. 64, No. 5, which was to open the November concert. It closed this one with a sly grin as the quartet relished all of Haydn’s little inside jokes.

Harvey Steiman