Superb Haydn and Beethoven, Magical Debussy from the Takács Quartet

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Debussy, and Beethoven: Takács Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 9.4.2015 (BJ)

Haydn: Quartet in C major, Op. 76 No. 3, “Emperor
Debussy: Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
Beethoven: Quartet in F major, Op. 59 No. 1, “Rasumovsky”


In the biggest work on this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program, Beethoven’s first “Rasumovsky” Quartet, the Takács Quartet (Hungarian in origin but based at the University of Colorado in Boulder since 1983) offered a level of interpretative insight and sheer excitement that is rarely to be encountered.

I had never quite realized before how much harmonic tension pervades the spacious paragraphs of the work’s first movement. For long stretches, the texture is shot through with small figures that seem to want to postpone for as long as possible the return to a firm tonal base. “This suspense is terrible,” I found myself, like Gwendolen Fairfax, thinking—“I hope it will last.” The manner of the performance throughout, athletic in the outer movements, genuinely funny in the highly original scherzo, and appropriately poignant in the Adagio molto e mesto third movement, fully established the Importance of Being Ludwig.

One of the strengths of the Takács Quartet is the notably individual tone quality of each of its members. András Fejér, who as cellist had the first prominent word in the Beethoven, produces a sound that is gloriously rich and sensual. The American violist Geraldine Walther’s tone is darkly expressive and firmly focused. Second violinist Károly Schranz—with Fejér, an original member since the quartet was formed in 1975—contrasts strongly in his sound, which has an appealingly poetic character, with the English first violinist, Edward Dusinberre, whose every note gleams brightly and bespeaks the born leader.

This latter contrast was particularly evident, and highly attractive, in the slow movement of the program’s opening work, Haydn’s C-major Quartet known as the “Emperor.” The nickname comes from the movement’s basis in the glorious melody that became known as “The Emperor’s Hymn,” which is subjected to a series of variations, one for each of the four instruments. Here, Schranz’s intensely thoughtful playing of the tune in the first variation made a wonderful foil to the original statement by Dusinberre that had preceded it.

Admirable also, and clear from the very first measures of the Haydn, is the gusto with which, despite never perpetrating an ugly note, all four players dug into their strings. This is one of Haydn’s greatest works, and it was played worthily. At the risk of sounding like a broken record (if anyone remembers what that was), I have to register my habitual complaint about the disregarding of the second repeat in the first movement. It’s sometimes suggested by skeptics that such repeats were often marked by composers merely out of habit. But when a composer goes to the length, as Haydn did here, of inserting the instruction “la seconda volta più presto” (“the second time faster”) at a certain point late in the movement, that argument won’t wash, and to hear it indeed played faster, but without having previously been played at the main tempo, makes a curiously illogical effect.

Never mind. That one detail aside, I found this a superbly stylish and expressively compelling Haydn performance. It was matched, moreover, by the Takács’ masterly reading of the Debussy Quartet. The slow movement in particular, marked “Andantino, doucement expressif,” was played with a delicacy and magic such as I have never before experienced in it.

Bernard Jacobson

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