United Kingdom Beethoven, Timo Andres and Elgar: Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz [violins], Geraldine Walther [viola], András Fejér [cello]), Aleksandar Madžar (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 3.2.2016 (CS)
Beethoven: String Quartet in D Op.18 No.3
Timo Andres: Strong Language
Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84
It can be a demanding task reviewing new works – or simply listening to them – because of the requirement for the ear to absorb a wealth of unfamiliar and/or diverse musical material, without the assistance of re-wind and re-play buttons. Timo Andres’ Strong Language presents contrary challenges, though. In this 25-minute work, which was written for the Takács Quartet, the ‘strength’ of the musical ‘language’ refers to the way, in the composer’s words, just a few musical ideas can be crafted to ‘[support] the weight of their structures’. The work has three movements. Middens is formed from an undulating melody, initially presented unaccompanied – and passed seamlessly by the Takács between the four voices – which gradually accumulates ‘sonic detritus … underneath each pile of notes’. (The title is a Middle-English word meaning dung-hill or pile of refuse.) In the second movement, Origin Story, a D minor triad expands by small steps eventually forming a melodic sequence, and then shrinks in on itself, its contrapuntal structure compressed into ever-smaller measures. Gentle Cycling reverses the process of the first movement: from ethereal timbres a melody progressively evolves, ultimately flowering into a beautiful duet for viola and cello.
The Takács Quartet created a strong sense of the music’s spatial growth and diminishments; melodic expansions were full-voiced but not indulgently rich, and in the contrasting contractions they maintained momentum. Similarly, though the recurring harmonic sequences of Origin Story implied cadences, there was never stasis; the bow strokes were dynamic and the cello’s low pedal notes dramatic. At the opening of Gentle Cycling the ‘spectral … plucks, scrapes and knocks’ possessed the dry precision of a harpsichord timbre, but the succeeding melodic motif – a sliding intervallic rise – evolved into an appealing dance. The ‘post-minimalist’ idiom may be fairly predictable and ‘comfortable’, and one of the work’s weaknesses is that it rarely generates points of tension. But, it was interesting to focus on the musical processes at work – processes which the Takács articulated clearly and vividly.
Such organic processes are handled with greater complexity, range and drama by Edward Elgar, in his Piano Quintet in which the shadowy fragments of the Moderato introduction to the first movement Allegro serve as the source of all the work’s material. Less than a month ago I heard the Heath Quartet and James Baillieu play this Quintet in the Wigmore Hall, a performance which I found quite ‘modern’ in its penetrating intensity and in which the conversing, competing parts retained their individual characters within the unified whole; I admired the players’ ‘innate appreciation of the ‘give and take’ which creates the characteristic restlessness of spirit’ of so much of Elgar’s music. But, in the hands of the Takács Quartet and pianist Aleksandar Madžar it was the impassioned, brooding Romanticism of the work which seemed to shine most strongly, as the sonorous piano and fiercely robust strings merged as one voice, perfectly balanced, perfectly attuned to the music’s changes of temperament.
An uninhibited energy and swelling lyricism drove the Allegro, the unease of the Moderato quickly swept aside. A compelling fusion of piano and string tone similarly characterised the Adagio, Geraldine Walther’s wonderfully spacious viola melody and the mellifluous liquidity of Madžar’s accompaniment lulling us into the complex emotional world of the movement, whose passionate rovings comforted, whether they moved through melancholy or heartening terrain. There was a strong sense of nostalgia for less troubled times, but it was a tender wistfulness rather than anxious regret. The openness of tone in the Finale was reassuring and uplifting, whatever inner turbulences may be present in this work, written at the end of World War I. The Takács and Madžar exuded a brightness and positivity which at times embraced exuberance, and which – despite the ghostly return of the Moderato’s restless motifs – was sustained to the close.
The Takács had begun the evening with Beethoven’s sunny D Major Quartet, the Op.18 No.3, playing with such easy familiarity that it almost felt that we were listening from inside the music. The smooth unfolding of the material, the lucid interchanges between the parts, the flawless intonation, the balance between the voices, and the unanimous rhythmic vivacity were all the more remarkable because there was never a sense of routine but rather a striking freshness and spontaneity. The gentle warmth of the Andante con moto – the quiet energy of the development, the sweetness of the close – was captivating, while the third movement was imbued, by means of slight rubato, with a quirky ambience. The Presto was breakneck but unfailingly precise: the textures were transparent which allowed the propelling motifs – often just the merest rhythmic or melodic gesture – to be heard. The Takács enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek shift to a more serious mode in the middle of the Finale, and made much of the slightly unexpected harmonic shifts.
This was a terrific evening of music-making which confirmed why the Takács are considered one of the world’s finest string quartets.