The Takács Quartet: Worthy Recipients of the Wigmore Medal

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Webern and Beethoven:Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola), András Fejér (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 10.05.2014 (CS)

Dmitry Shostakovich: String Quartet No.2 in A , Op.68
Anton Webern: Five Movements, Op.5
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, Op.132

Founded in 1975, the Takács Quartet made their Wigmore Hall debut in 1979, as Gold Medal winners of the inaugural Portsmouth (now Wigmore Hall) International String Quartet Competition, thus beginning a long association with the venue.  Appointed the Hall’s first Associate Artists in 2012, the Quartet have now been further honoured, receiving the Wigmore Medal from John Gilhooly, director of the Hall, at the conclusion of this characteristically absorbing recital.

In the first half, the Takács presented two works which both express the psychological bleakness experienced by their composers, but which do so in entirely contrasting forms and language.

Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets represent the most substantial sequence in the genre since Beethoven.  While the first quartet (1938) was a small fifteen-minute foray into the quartet genre, the rarely performed second quartet – composed in 1944 while Shostakovich was at the Soviet Composers’ Union retreat at Ivanovo – is not only significantly more substantial but also the most ‘conventional’ of all the composer’s quartets in terms of structure.

The first violin dominates the opening Moderato con moto, and leader Edward Dusinberre urged the music forward in confident fashion; the spacious dialogue between the voices was constantly evolving, at times acerbic and turbulent, elsewhere more tender, always insistent.  The Takács’s profound understanding of the musical material was evidenced by their relaxed articulation of the complex and varied emotions encapsulated in this movement.

The second movement is entitled ‘Recitative and Romance’.  Dusinberre’s sweet-toned melody was poignantly introspective, but still projected eloquently above the sensitive accompaniment of the other three instruments, their recurring two-note motif assuming a melancholy, lamenting air.  It was as if the composer’s voice was speaking directly to us, and this movement was perhaps the most insightful and captivating of the entire evening.

András Fejér’s expressive cello theme cast aside such inward meditation at the start of the unnerving Mahlerian waltz which follows.  Each episode had its own colour: the graceful pizzicato-accompanied violin melody giving way to ever more vociferous exchanges.

It is the solo viola which introduces the folky theme of the concluding Theme and Variations, and Geraldine Walther’s tone was stirringly rich, and suggestive of the drama which was to evolve as we passed through the variations.  We finally arrived at the propulsive gallop of incessant semi-quavers, which the Takács delivered with unceasing intensity.  After pushing the material to the brink of dissolution, the broad chords which closed the movement were satisfyingly conclusive and consoling.

In contrast with Shostakovich’s expansiveness, Webern’s Five Movements (1909) are models of economy, the whole work lasting little more than ten minutes.  Webern initially considered titling the work Five Pieces, but ‘Movements’ does seem more appropriate, for although there is little to link the movements thematically or motivically, there is an unalleviated concentration that binds them.

The Takács potently encapsulated the particular ambience of each movement.  The first movement is the most ‘extensive’, and from the first violin’s initial descending minor 9th leap, the players articulated every sudden shift in texture, dynamics and register with clarity and formidable control.  The almost violent disintegration of the material subsided in the subsequent adagio (‘Sehr langsam’).  In these thirteen fragile bars, the delicate melodic thread was passed eloquently from viola to violins, the pianissimo so extreme as to be – as Webern instructed – almost inaudible at times.   After the bitingly agitated scherzo, quiet was restored in the brief fourth movement, before the shrinking fragments of the final ‘In zarter Bewegung’ (‘With tender movement’) brought this compressed distillation of musical thought to a close.

More formal and stylistic innovation followed the interval, with Beethoven’s Op.132; moreover, the Takács’s approach was refreshing too.  The multi-movement form is of course unique, but the unrestrained forward momentum that was established in the introductory Assai sostenuto and sustained throughout, emphasized the more familiar four-movement architectural foundations which underpin the surface experimentation.  This slow introduction was eloquent but also quite understated, drawing attention not to its own individual features and gestures but to its role as a preface to the Allegro which follows.

The assurance with which the Takács negotiated the technical and interpretative challenges was astonishing, revealing a deep appreciation of Beethoven’s sonorities and textures.  In the minuet-like Allegro ma non tanto, the constantly shifting balances and timbres were perfectly voiced: details of articulation and dynamics were observed with precision but without undue mannerism.  The ‘rustic’ gestures were animated but graceful, and convincingly assimilated within the classical idiom.

The concentration achieved in the central Molto Adagio revived the transcendent ethereality of the Webern we had so recently experienced.  The individual performers were entirely immersed in their shared conversation and reflections.

The fairly brief ‘bridge’ movement – Alla marcia, assai vivace – led boldly into Dusinberre’s impassioned recitative, supported by iridescent tremolo accompaniment.  This was a short-lived, tense hiatus before the quartet launched into the Allegro appassionato, driving relentlessly forward, the music restless and surging, towards an impassioned conclusion.

Claire Seymour


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