Takács Bring Bohemia and Moravia’s Finest to the Wigmore Hall

United Kingdom Dvořák, Janáček: Takács Quartet with  Graham Mitchell (double bass), Wigmore Hall, London, 23.2.2014

Dvořák: String Quartet in F major Op, 96 ‘American’
Janáček: String Quartet No. 1. ‘Kreutzer Sonata’
Dvořák: String Quintet in G major Op. 77


This recital was part of an ongoing series at the Wigmore Hall of music from Bohemia and Moravia, also with music by Smetana

Dvořák uses the pentatonic scale giving the first movement of the ‘American’ Quartet its open and simple tone. Although, if listened to carefully, there are quite a few moments of dramatic tension, especially in the A major second theme and the transition into the development section with much denser harmonies, and dramatic rhythmic cross-overs. All this and a brilliant fugato leading to the recapitulation and coda were realised with a rare degree of idiomatic and musical insight by the Takács Quartet. The second movement in D minor marked ‘Lento’ reminds us that unlike the ‘New World Symphony’ Dvořák does not incorporate recognisable ‘American’ themes. But he does intone what sounds like a ‘Negro Spiritual’, or an ‘American Indian’ tune. Although written in the  same pentatonic scale as in the first movement, the second movement has a more reflective tone. The Takács phrasing of the basic simple melody, with pulsing accompaniment second violin and viola was a model of lyrical constraint and subtle contrast.

 The third movement is a variant of the traditional scherzo. The somewhat quirky tune is inflected with off-beats and cross-rhythms. The pulsing tone of the second movement, played in a more rhythmically strong manner, is heard in the second half, which is then repeated. Again this was totally integrated playing. The strong rhythmical contrasts made their effect without ever sounding over forced. The Takács brought the same degree of insight into the finale, a traditional rondo again in the pentatonic scale, with finely contoured lyrical modulations, concluding with a rousing and spirited chorale theme.

 I can’t think of any other non-operatic work which has such a close affinity with a classic literary text as  Janáček’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ Quartet. The only other chamber work which comes near it in these terms is Janacek’s second quartet, composed five years later, and entitled ‘Intimate Letters’. The Kreutzer Quartet is seen as a kind of appendage, or ‘musical psychograph’ to the Tolstoy novella. One writer has even  suggested that on close study of the score we can  reveal hidden unconscious motives in a story of love, jealousy, obsession and revenge. Of course in many ways Tolstoy’s novella is open to musical renditions the story involving, as it does, the suspected extra musical activities of a wife and a violinist who play duos together. Of the duos they play, in seeming innocence, is the so called ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata by Beethoven and whose opening ‘presto’ inflames the husband into frantic jealousy and lust for revenge. He murders his wife.

 Much has been made of Janáček’s sympathy for the unfaithful wife, and all women who are victims of marital patriarchal violence. This was in contrast to Tolstoy who maintained the sanctity of marriage and went on in Platonic fashion to accuse music of inducing by artful seduction such violations to marriage – ‘music as the greatest cause of adultery known to mankind’. Of course Janáček comes out as a hero here, especially in recent times. Janáček as a kind of proto-feminist! This is reinforced by his operas many of which have lead parts for virtuous women who are wrongly insulted and injured. Think of  Katya Kabanova and Jenufa! But recently evidence has come to light suggesting that in reality Janáček was far from the respected advocate of women’s rights,being quite the opposite of what we have come to admire. But is it not possible to listen to the quartet as a quartet, as music, devoid of its literary and scandalous baggage?  I think it is. One reason for this is that it is truly outstandingly original and beautiful music. The four movements actually correspond to the classical construction of drama, exposition – dramatic climax – crisis – catastrophe – clarification – resolution. The quartet is a model of economy, each of its four movements being distinct in terms of structure and musical content, but also unified by discreet and interconnecting motifs. Janáček’s writing here is more like a thematic montage, almost abandoning the fields of traditional harmony and counterpoint and instead making free with the various sonic factors typical of Janacek, including the characteristic modal inflections.

 The Takács Quartet brought out the full range of expressive/musical and contrasting challenges. Especially compelling were the way in which the ‘chorale’ theme from the Beethoven sonata was punctuated by an agitated, sharp  thrusting motif marked sul ponticello (near the bridge) producing a cold, detached sound indicative of the husband’s mounting jealousy. Also the eerie syncopated chromatic theme in octaves suggesting the tones of the violinist seducer.

 There were moments when I would have welcomed a more dramatic and sharp approach heard in  Czech quartets like the Škampa Quartet, or a more sustained tragic resignation in the final ‘seduction scene’ as portrayed by the wonderful Talich Quartet. But overall the Takács’ rendition of this ever fascinating work was inspiring and compelling.

 Why Dvořák’s tremendously engaging String Quintet in G is not played more often is a complete mystery to me. It could almost be seen (or heard) as a Czech version of Schubert’s Great C major Quintet which augments the texture with an additional cello. In contrast Dvořák deploys an additional double-bass partly to free the cello to enter into a clearer dialogue with the violin, as in the opening movements exposition.  Of course in tonal register, etc, the two works are completely different, but they both exude a largesse and humanity which  became increasingly rare in the following 20th century. Of the myriad fascinating features of this work are the way in which Dvořák in the first movement takes small melodic ideas/fragments and utterly changes their character; a triplet rhythm at one stage comes over as an apparently light comic opera theme, which then re-emerges in the multi-faceted development section in a much sterner guise. The E minor scherzo initially takes on the character of a simple folk inspired dance, but the increasing chromatic inflections not only add a tone of Slavic melancholy but turn the whole structure of the movement into something more complex and dramatic. The more lyrical trio, reminiscent of a theme from the scherzo of the ‘New World’ symphony, acts as a perfectly contrasted counterweight. The Poco andante movement is remarkable for its tonal shifts around a contrasting C major and E minor.  The finale, in rondo form, is light-hearted and dance-like, although also containing surprise modulations from G major to E flat. The coda, with its seemingly endless (but well balanced) stop-start mock imitation endings has an almost Haydnesque sense of humour. But, as in Schubert’s C major Quintet, already mentioned, when  the actual last note does arrive it has a wonderfully satisfying feeling of finality and resolution.

 Needless to say the Takács Quartet gave an excellently integrated and responsive rendition of this fascinating work; quite the equal of the best Czech performances. Graham Mitchell’s double-bass part was perfectly attuned to the quartet, adding a wonderful, almost orchestral sonority and depth to the work’s already rich textures.

Geoff Diggines