United Kingdom Haydn, Bartók and Mendelssohn: Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes [violins], Geraldine Walther [viola], András Fejér [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London 5.11.2019. (CSa)
Haydn – String Quartet in C Op.33 No.3 (‘The Bird’)
Bartók – String Quartet No.2
Mendelssohn – String Quartet in A minor Op.13
Founded in Budapest in 1975 but based in Colorado, the formidable Takács Quartet returned to London’s Wigmore Hall for the first of two concerts. The sheer breadth and depth of the ensemble’s artistry was on full display in a varied programme spanning the far ends of the historical spectrum.
In the first half of the recital, Haydn’s String Quartet ‘The Bird’ and Bartók’s String Quartet No.2 offered stark contrasts in harmony and style, and a palette of contrasting instrumental colours. Haydn’s tuneful work – elegant yet earthy, tender and humorous – was worlds away from Bartók’s astringent and melancholy composition. Yet the decision to pair these quartets in the same programme makes sense when considering each in its cultural and historical context and the personal circumstances of the composers. Both Haydn and Bartók were much influenced by ethnic folk melody – a notable feature in each work. Both men lived under Hapsburg rule, and played an important role in the musical life of Austro-Hungary. Haydn, happy and secure in the employ of the Esterházys, wrote his joyous ‘Bird’ Quartet in 1781, at the apex of imperial power and confidence. Bartók’s Second Quartet, however, was composed at a time of personal and political turmoil, during the dark years of the Great War and the last uncertain days of the mighty Empire.
Mozart once said that ‘No one can do everything – jest and shock, create laughter and profound emotion – as Haydn can’. The exquisite first movement of the Haydn quartet, an Allegro moderato – all warbling grace notes and swelling bird song – perfectly illustrate Mozart’s claim, and in this performance the players struck just the right balance between courtly civility and whimsy. Against the gentle throbbing of the second violin and viola (Harumi Rhodes and Geraldine Walther respectively), Edward Dussinberre’s warm lead violin gently swooped in and out as if a bird in flight. The second movement – a poignant prayer-like Scherzo – was impishly punctuated by a duet of cheeping violins, while the calm third movement Adagio was all limpid purity. The Rondo finale, based on a Hungarian folk tune, erupted into a joyous burst of energy before mysteriously vanishing.
The Takács’ account of Bartók’s Second Quartet was revelatory. Unified in purpose, but speaking with individual voices, the four players eloquently expressed the anger, pain and fierce passion that permeate the work’s first and second movements, and the sadness and ultimately the anxiety and resignation that pervade the third.
Any residual post-Bartókian gloom was swept away after the interval by a restorative and finely nuanced account of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor. The young Mendelssohn – just 18 years old at the time of writing – was inspired by Beethoven who had recently died, and a pretty young neighbour with whom he had become infatuated. The result is a work of Beethovenian intensity and instrumental complexity, but one in which Mendelssohn’s talent for brilliant melodies abounds. The opening hymn-like Adagio was played with great expression, giving way to a soulful Allegro vivace. In the hands of these musicians, the second movement, an Adagio non lento, became an elegy of grave beauty. Reminiscent of the composer’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the shimmering, delicate third movement Intermezzo was superbly phrased, and the intricacy of Presto made to look effortless. A final and richly sonorous reprise of the Quartet’s meditative opening Adagio completed the work, and brought an evening of masterful musicianship to a fitting close.