A Mixed Evening with the Takács Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Haydn:  Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz, violins; Geraldine Walther, viola; András Fejér, cello) with Charles Owen (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 22.2.2013 (CC)

Brahms: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51/1
Haydn: String Quartet in D, Op. 76/5
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op 34

This was the second of two concerts given by the Takács Quartet at the Wigmore this particular week: the first, which featured violist Lawrence Power as guest artist, was reviewed by my colleague Mark Berry on this site.

The first part of the concert was an unalloyed triumph by any standards. This triumph was that the Takács Quartet delivered Brahms with a deep, burnished sound but managed also to present the interplay of lines with such clarity. True, Dusinberre’s tone could have been sweeter at times, but on the plus side was his occasional, and subtle, use of portamento. Brahms’ segmentation of line and texture in the first movement development (almost a deconstruction of material) was powerfully delivered; the quasi-symphonic nature of the first movement coda seemed the logical outcome of a piece whose parameters are set so wide.

The Romanze (Poco adagio) again boasted that warmth of sound of which the Takács Quartet is so capable, but the sense of intimacy was low. There were moments of high beauty: a perfect Brahmsian veil over the music at lower dynamic levels and Geraldine Walther’s gorgeously toned viola being prime amongst them.

The contrasts of the first movement were reflected in the reading as a whole: the gentle ululations of the third movement (Allegretto molto moderato e comodo) sat in high contrast to the urgent, intense finale. Overall, then, a memorable account.

Haydn’s D major Quartet, Op. 76/3 emerged as a breath of fresh air. The first movement begins with a siciliano-type theme and Haydn goes on to tease the listener as to whether or not this will blossom into a fully-fledged set of variations. Dramatic interruptions took on a positively Brahmsian import, and it was left to the hymnic Largo ma non troppo – delivered in blanched tone – to provide respite. What truly marked the Takács’ reading was an awareness of the forward-looking nature of some of Haydn’s writing – the veiled Trio of the Scherzo, for example, with its wonderful scamperings, courtesy of cellist András Fejér. The horse-play of the finale, where Haydn famously begins with an ending, not a beginning, was perhaps the perfect pre-interval way to close.

That the Takács Quartet plays with great sophistication is, I believe, beyond doubt. Maybe they need to reconsider their way of choosing their guests, though. Charles Owen is a young pianist, active on labels such as Somm and Avie (on which label I found his Fauré Nocturnes somewhat lacking) who teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Throughout he demonstrated that he was in a significantly lower league than his esteemed companions. True, his lean, low-pedal approach was laudable, and again textural clarity from all sides was a notable plus. Yet the nagging problem was that Owen was not inside the music, something the high-octane first movement demands. Impressions were confirmed in the second movement (Andante, un poco adagio), where Owen’s literal playing completely missed the Innigkeit so necessary to the music’s survival. By this point, the call of the strings – clearly so much more au fait with Brahms – was loud and clear and it was only too tempting to set one’s aural radar just to them and effectively to filter out the piano.

The quiet tension of the Scherzo’s opening was not quite there, the energy for the emotional outbursts clearly set to ‘Power Save’. The skeletal Poco sostenuto opening to the finale – string dominated – was simply magnificent, a ghost of a gesture that threatened to solidify into something momentous. There was indeed, more energy, particularly to the coda, but it was too little too late to rescue a disappointing experience brought about by poor choice of pianist.

A mixed concert, to say the least.

Colin Clarke