Wonderfully Penetrating Mendelssohn and Shostakovich from the Takács Quartet

CanadaCanada Mozart, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn: Takács String Quartet [Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola), András Fejér (cello)], Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 12.12.2017. (GN)

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Takács String Quartet © Richard Houghton

Mozart – String Quartet No.21 in D major K.575

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.11 in F minor Op.122

Mendelssohn – String Quartet No.6 in F minor Op.80

The Takács Quartet have presented many intriguing programmes in their annual pilgrimages to Vancouver, but the current one stands at the top of the list. It featured the ensemble’s first ventures into both the Mendelssohn quartets and the late quartets of Shostakovich, accompanied by the first of Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ Quartets. Perhaps there was a darker theme linking all the works: Mendelssohn’s sixth and final quartet was written just after the death of his sister Fanny and just before his own demise. Shostakovich’s No.11 was written in homage to the Beethoven Quartet’s recently-departed second violinist, Vasily Shirinsky, while the Mozart quartet No.21 was also written in the composer’s final years. The purity of the playing in the Shostakovich was stunning, while I doubt I have heard a finer performance of the Mendelssohn. The Mozart had an unusually wistful quality. All the performances evinced the greatest thought in preparation.

If there was ever a place for impassioned histrionic response, it is in the Mendelssohn Quartet No.6, and a good variety of past performances have tried to paint its frenzied opening, and much of the rest of the work, in truly purple colours. The Takács’ performance was so enjoyable in that it resisted this temptation: it built the work’s intensity artfully, always finding a strong sense of determination in the music’s progress but allowing room for a flourishing lyricism to mix with the abandoned frenzy. They were able to open out considerable musical space and detail in both the first and last movements precisely because they did not hurtle them along; nonetheless, the Takács succeeded in building an overwhelming frisson at their close. At its considered pace, the opening Allegro was firmer, richer and more varied than I had previously heard, especially in finding room for moments of lyrical repose and warmth. This allowed the buoyant succeeding movement to be given uncompromising thrust and sinew – the sense of dogged determination always present. The Adagio was the highlight, starting from tender, innocent fragrances reminiscent of the composer’s earliest quartets, building to a weighty, impassioned climax in the middle, before retreating to the type of radiant sweetness that only Mendelssohn could know. Here the perception of the composer’s style was extraordinary. The finale had keen pacing and inevitability, the group letting everything out at the end with splendid electricity. Mendelssohn’s last quartet is revealed as a great work not only because it expresses a unique passion springing from personal loss, but also because it synthesizes many of the special feelings and nuances that identify the composer’s art as a whole.

The Takács have presented Shostakovich’s second and third quartets in previous years, but their move to No.11 on this occasion enters the rarefied world of the composer’s late quartets. As with late Beethoven, the number and form of the composer’s movements are subject to innovation, there are new instrumental effects, and this relatively short quartet is played continuously over its seven movements. Written immediately after Shirinsky’s death, it is natural to see an unearthly countenance in its somber textures, hinting at burning feelings just below the surface. The Takács’ approach, more than most treatments, stripped back the metaphysical undercurrents and concentrated on the work’s ingenuity and beauty as music per se. They worked discerningly off the tonal centers and harmonic synergies created by the dominating major and minor seconds, exhibiting superb dynamic control at very soft volumes. I have rarely encountered a purer, more economical distillation of this musical ‘whole’. The carefully placed swoops and slides and the ominous two- and three-note phrases were there, alongside the other manifestations of fragility of spirit, but all seemed to flow into each other seamlessly; one gleaned their importance within an overall structural concept rather than in their role as pained subjective utterances. I have enjoyed performances that do portray the work as an inexorable flow of deep feeling, ending in a distilled state of bleakness, but here was left more in awe at the work’s structural unity, impeccable musical balance and sheer ingenuity. The Takács brought force to the greatness of this late quartet in terms of the ingredients of its pure musical construction.

The concert opened with a fine performance of Mozart’s Quartet K.575. I have sometimes doubted that the Takács’ nervous intensity and sharp accenting had the most natural fit with the ease and fluidity of Mozart’s phrasing, for all the detail and structural integrity they achieve. Nonetheless, this was a particularly thoughtful and individual reading: the group seemed to draw on a parallel between this work and the great String Quintets (K.515/6), both of which give strong emphasis to the sinewy lower voices. Here it is the cello that gets extraordinary prominence, largely to satisfy King Frederick William of Prussia who commissioned the work and was himself a cellist. There is a strong role for the viola too. The motion of the opening Allegretto immediately takes one to the quintets, rhythmically alert but finding a fine ebb and flow to propel the movement forward with a wistful feeling. Sometimes half-lights were uncovered, while András Fejér’s expressive cello often provided the lyrical lift to the phrasing. An awareness of the suspending rise and fall in phrases, harnessed to thoughtful dynamic control, also yielded a perceptive Andante. The cello plays a leading role in the closing Allegretto, and this movement found patient and beautiful detailing from all concerned and a fine sense of narrative, with wistful allusions sometimes moving in the direction of Haydn’s last quartet, Op.104.

Not all Takács appearances have provided quite the bounty that this one did. There was new repertoire to relish and each performance was absolutely individual. It is rare to see an ensemble that so consistently seeks to find the coherence and greatness of each work on its own terms.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com

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