Clear-Headed Ohlsson Joins Penetrating Takács in Brahms and Haydn

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Brahms: Takács Quartet, Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 20.3.2013 (DA)

Brahms: String Quartet in A Minor, Op.51/2
Haydn: String Quartet in B Flat Major, Op.76/4 “Sunrise”
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op.34

If pressed, I would struggle to think of a more purely interesting, penetrating quartet on today’s circuit than the Takács Quartet. (At least one that focuses primarily on non-contemporary compositions.) So their playing proved here once again, in the second of two New York dates this season, even if there were a few more slips and difficulties than one might usually hear from these forces.*

One of those unfortunately came in an unsettled opening to the second of Brahms’s Op.51 quartets. (I wondered whether it might have been intentional, but the exposition repeat’s stark improvement suggested otherwise.) The Takács’s characteristic take on precision soon took over, however, and they brought orchestral colouring and a properly fluid tempo. Brahms’s technique of “developing variation” (as outlined by Schoenberg) was rendered in a ceaseless flow of poised intrigue, that poise barely hiding something rather darker at the centre, as any good Brahms performance ought, and looking forward to Brahms’s later works. Realist beauty again featured strongly in the Takács’s playing of the slow movement, its brief flurries and excursions melded into a breathtakingly long line, the dialogue between and among players always eloquently underlined but never too much. The ‘quasi menuetto’ third movement emerged as a mercurial synthesis, but it was the finale that struck more. Harmonic detailing and drive were tucked into with spirited zeal, without hiding tinges of instability in the piece’s inner worlds. Form and moment merged into one in symphonic fashion: if only more conductors made Brahms sound as alive as this!

Ditto Haydn, who suffers from a dearth of decent interpreters at the orchestral level. Not so here in a performance of the “Sunrise” quartet that consistently surprised. Vivacity kept tenderness in mind in the opening movement, one that paid great attention to form. Haydn’s mock opening – one you think is a slow introduction but turns out to be anything but – became progressively more confident, and was justly celebrated at the moment of recapitulation. Concision in the development bewitched, only to be confounded by the elaborate coda and the joy that the Takács brought to it. A similar sense of journey, unpredictable and yet natural, accompanied the gentle sadness of the slow movement. Freedom of tempo – as in the Brahms – allowed humour in the minuet, although the transition to a trio that danced rustically felt a little too much like falling off a cliff. Wit stayed for the finale’s ride, married to seriousness of purpose until, with a thrillingly vulgar move through the gears, cheek became the one purpose left. A recording of the Op.76 quartets cannot be far away.**

Garrick Ohlsson is a clear-headed Brahmsian – a clear-headed pianist all round, really – and although communication felt at times a little forced, his addition for the Piano Quintet worked well. Here was richer playing than in the quartet, although again it took time to find its feet. Once it did, though, the first movement nauseated in all the right ways, with its uncertainties and mysteries. Like the finale of the Fourth Symphony, this music often feels like a vortex, with little at its heart as comfort. Certainly the slow movement provided none, even as the strings sang individually and therefore as one, again in long lines. Here Ohlsson’s playing might have had more to say, sounding a little blocky. The scherzo was properly alarming, attacked with a venom that could come only from anxiety and played with a scarcely credible intensity (particularly at the scherzo’s return). Too much Brahms playing cossets, but really to hit home sometimes his music must shock: the finale did, in Beethovenian fashion, and it resolved in a way that implied Brahms had much more to say.

* By the way, Boulezian reviewed a similar Wigmore Hall programme a month ago, the only difference being the use of the Op.111 String Quintet rather than the Piano Quintet. Read it here.

** The Takács Quartet have of course recorded the Op.76 before, on Decca, but with a very different playing staff.

David Allen
Unpredictable Inevitability