Masterly, Penetrating Schubert from the Takács Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola), András Féjer (cello)], Wigmore Hall London, 31. 1.2015 (CS)

String Quartet Movement in C minor D.703
String Quartet in A Minor D.804 ‘Rosamunde’
String Quartet in D Minor D.810 ‘Death and the Maiden’


There is episode in Ian Bostridge’s recent book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, in which the singer recalls a performance at the Wigmore Hall during which he noticed two audience members – both distinguished instrumentalists – who seemed to be astonished and disconcerted by the way in which Bostridge and his pianist Julius Drake had chosen to interpret a rhythmic motif in Schubert’s song Wasserflut (‘Flood’).  Having just read the chapter in which this anecdote is related on my way to the Wigmore Hall to hear a performance of Schubert’s two string masterpieces, the ‘Rosamunde’ D.804 and ‘Death and the Maiden’ D.810 quartets – pieces which I know extremely well as both listener and performer – I found myself smiling wryly when the Takács Quartet repeatedly surprised me with unexpected textures, emphases, colours and tempi, and yet still managed to make the music sound as if this was indeed the only way in which it could be played.

We began with Schubert’s String Quartet Movement in C minor D.703, the composer’s first mature piece for string quartet.  Here the unpredictability, invention, textural and structural capriciousness which the Takács would emphasise throughout the evening was revealed through the extreme dynamic contrasts and unstable harmonies and impulsive melodic ideas.  The result was dramatic and tense, challenging the listener even while the technical assurance of the four players beguiled.

In the String Quartet in A minor D.804, commonly known as the ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, the Takács found the troughs and peaks of the composer’s emotions and moods, balancing melancholy and unrest with beauty and serenity.  In the Allegro ma non troppo I found the grasp of form, and harmonic nuance and modulation, utterly convincing.  This first movement was quite dark and intense; the music meanders but the Takács gave it direction.  The Andante, taken at a fairly brisk tempo, combined folky innocence with the sophistication of the artwork; incisive definition in the inner voices in the animated middle section created a gritty realism to complement the reticent melancholy latent in the ‘Rosamunde’ theme.

I found that the repeating dotted rhythm which initiates the Menuetto assumed an uncanny tinge as it moved through the harmonic landscape; there was breadth in the Trio and a lovely warmth to violist Geraldine Walther’s closing melodic decoration.  The fluidity of the final Allegro Moderato was astonishing.  Details were superbly observed and differentiated, and there was suavity to alleviate the shadows.

The Allegro of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet opened with a snarling octave unison, which startled with its ferocity; vibrato-less, the crescendo through the held note snapped off violently with the concluding crotchet of the motif.  Then, almost immediately came a barely perceptible whisper of a pianissimo, energy humming quietly.  With the commencement of the imitative dialogue, the triple motif danced from voice to voice: all the while the drive was onwards, but the dynamic contained.  The restatement of the opening rhetoric brought organic development: the snatched crotchet blossomed into a legato skipping rise, and the counterpoint was marked by clarity of texture which gave each voice a crisp independent argument, even while the coherence and coordination were faultless.  The modulation to the major brought sweet folk-like duetting from the two violins, although the quick tempo did not allow for any real relaxation.  Such mercurial twists and turns generated excitement throughout the long movement.  As the themes were developed, semiquavers raced like quicksilver about and around conversations in which well-etched rhythmic motifs leapt between the voices.  Everything had edge and bite, and at times a certain dryness of tone lent an unsentimental air, making the impassioned passages more striking still.

The silky bow changes and evenness of tone which characterised the theme of the Andante con moto took us to another world, one far from the dramatic immediacy of the Allegro, but no less penetrating.  In the following variations, crescendos through the homophonic passages had a burnished richness which succumbed to dreamy diminuendos, Dusinberre’s expressive ornaments adding eloquence to the cadences.  Féjer’s pizzicatos were incisive but full, and nimble triplets in the inner voices swept the music forward.  Dusinberre seemed able to transform an elegant rising phrase of gracefulness to one of assertive defiance, in the flash of an instant, finding infinite resonances in the thematic material.  Féjer’s high, lyrical variation was a yearning lamentation: but the fairly swift tempo ensured that indulgence was resisted.  But, there was room to breathe in the transitions between variations, and there was contrast in the more rhythmic variations between the dense, repetitive pounding and the reflective episodes.  During the closing pianissimo variations the insistent cello pedal was eerie and disturbing, exploding in an outburst of melodicism before retreating to an otherworldly close.

Sforzandi were punched out in the Scherzo: Allegro molto, but the overall effect was rhythmic dynamism rather than aggression.  The precision of the staccato crotchets was impressive: dry and crisp they provided a counterbalance to the syncopated swing of the phrases’ rhythmic arguments.  The Trio was all equanimity and Classical elegance after the folky defiance of the Scherzo.  The Presto theme, in octave unison, was full of risk: fast, astonishingly airy yet still conveying presence.  Fortissimo arpeggios exploded and disappeared with brilliance and magic; the richness of the chordal interjections was both surprising and deeply satisfying, triggering imitative explorations which sank into expressive meandering, then turned to rhetorical outbursts.  Unrest and passion were paradoxically allied with absolute musical and technical mastery: intonation and ensemble were flawless.  I was on the edge of my seat throughout.  A wonderful performance.

Claire Seymour

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