Magnificent Shostakovich from the Takács Quartet

CanadaCanada Haydn, Shostakovich, Beethoven: Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz, violins, Geraldine Walther, viola and András Fejér, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, 13.3.2016. (GN)

Takasce SQ
Takács Quartet (c) Keith Saunders

Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3 ‘Reiterquartett’ 

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 9 in C minor, Op. 59, No. 3

The celebrated Takács Quartet has visited annually for decades, but each time resonates in the memory. The key seems to be the combination of their remarkable talent and insight with perennially astute programming. While the ensemble typically gravitates to the bedrock of the classical and romantic repertoire, they usually bring along something new as well, often a major piece that they have really worked on. A few years ago, it was the quartets of Benjamin Britten (now recorded on Hyperion); this time it was Shostakovich’s monumental Quartet No. 3 (1946). The ensemble played the composer’s Second Quartet a few years ago (also recently issued on Hyperion with the Piano Quintet), but the Takács’ progress on Shostakovich has been very patient to say the least. Fortunately, this approach appears to pay dividends, since we received a most inspiring performance of the Third Quartet – beautifully strong and lean, yet remarkably sensitive and inward – and I say this having witnessed the Borodin Quartet traverse the Shostakovich cycle in its full magnificence only eight months ago.

The beguiling refinement and ease of the opening jog-trot in the Allegro, pointed but still exuding a subtle sensuality and flow, yielded an initial taste of the quality of the playing. Even though tempos were leisurely, everything felt perfectly proportioned and insightful. As we moved to the greater intensity of the double fugue, the sense of musical space was notable. This was pristine playing, never overly-padded, yet fully cognizant of Shostakovich’s own dictum that ‘nothing should ever be vulgar’. The feeling of a ‘dance of death’ was admirably conveyed in the tightly-articulated Moderato, while the rhythmic bite and sinew in the subsequent Allegro highlighted its structural strength. The heart of the work is the great Adagio, finding emotional depths similar to those of the later Eighth Quartet. It started from a beautifully fluid, lyrical presentation of its famous yearning theme. Later, increased sinew, combining with moments of great tenderness, spelled a lovely feeling of noble determination amidst the vulnerability. Geraldine Walther’s soft viola lament at the very end, accompanied by the cello, was simply unforgettable in its tenderness and beauty. The closing Passacaglia, starting in the mists, and then featuring the return of the little jog-trot tunes on two occasions, was executed with alluring point, rhythms always beautifully sprung. There was greater concentration as we moved on: the final return to the mists – over the very soft ‘ground’ – produced a true feeling of resolution.

This was a remarkably ‘whole’ performance, very much unearthing the inner nerve ends of the piece. I will not forget this performance, yet it did have a different feel than the Borodins. Perhaps there is less steel in the Takács, but more fiber and sophistication, and more underlying rhythmic flow. Certainly, the Borodins have always had their eye out for the stark, icy moments in Shostakovich and the composer’s jagged architectural strength as well. I’m not saying the Takacs gave a more romantic reading – not in the slightest – but their sensitivity and the intimacy was different, if equally telling. In the sinewy middle movements, sometimes slight feelings of Bartók came to me in the ensemble’s more lateral rhythmic push, and a tinge of ‘night music’ folk imagery might have lingered in the meditative passages. To have a hint of Bartók in one’s Shostakovich is hardly a depressing prospect, given the renowned stature of both these composer’s quartets, and given the Takács are a Hungarian quartet. Nonetheless, I happened to briefly bring up this question with the quartet’s founder, cellist András Fejér. He responded immediately by saying, ‘No, this is absolutely 100% Russian – “Red” Russian’. So, what do I know? It was a remarkable interpretation in any case.

The Haydn and Beethoven performances returned us to familiar terrain. The highlights of the former’s ‘Rider’ Quartet were a wonderfully deep and inward slow movement (taking us right to the apex of the Op. 76 quartets), and a beautifully varied and sophisticated treatment of the motion-driven finale. These were among the finest performances of either movement I have heard. Their Beethoven Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3 is widely familiar from the 2001 recording for Decca. But it is now 15 years later, and I think the interpretation has deepened. On this occasion, the decision to pursue deliberate tempi, while taking all repeats, really gave the work more length and stature, especially in the first two movements.

The distilled opening of the first movement was sustained at a very slow pace, but what was as interesting was that the main Allegro was never pushed or romanticized: its forward momentum was always broken by continuing lyrical interjections or a sense of contemplation. This treatment was more complex and dense in interpretative layers than usual. The lovely Andante certainly found its ‘heavenly lengths’ and one noted a rhapsodic folk element throughout: even the famous cello pizzicato were softer and more flexible in feel, and many of the voicings were introspective. What cut across the musing was the sforzandi, and that was true in the Menuetto too. Somehow one could feel the brazen edges of the late quartets just around the corner. It is rare that we see all-out virtuoso playing from the Takács, but the closing Allegro proved to be the place to find it. The group has strong sinew and nervous energy to begin with, but to see it wound up like this was a pretty unique experience. This performance was pure molten heat and even the normally modest Edward Dusinberre looked like he had just come back from the trenches by the end of it. I have seldom seen such strong display from them.

So was this another memorable concert with the Takács? The test is simple: each performance here produced unmistakably individual ideas, and types of feelings, to ponder seriously in the future. If only every concert were like that! In the case of the Beethoven, we are fortunate that we need no longer rely on our own personal conjectures on what the Takács are doing: Edward Dusinberre’s new book, Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet, was indeed on sale in the lobby. The sequel, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets will be released in May 2016.

Geoffrey Newman

(Seen and Heard apologies for the delayed posting of this review.)

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