Rich contrasts: a Wigmore Hall evening of dazzling versatility by the Takács Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, F. Mendelssohn and Schubert: Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes [violins], Richard O’Neill [viola], and András Fejér [cello]. Wigmore Hall, London, 15.5.2023. (CSa)

Takács Quartet


Haydn – String Quartet in F, Op.77 No.2
Fanny Mendelssohn – String Quartet in E-flat major
Schubert – String Quartet in G major, D887

Schubert’s chamber works were clearly influenced by Joseph Haydn, and although the two men were contemporaries and compatriots, they never met and were, in every sense, worlds apart. ‘Papa’ Haydn, also known as the Father of the String Quartet, was the originator of the form. He was a brilliant and hugely successful court musician comfortably housed and employed by wealthy aristocrats. He had composed over 75 quartets by the time he died at the ripe age of 77. On the other hand, Schubert, although prodigiously productive, was financially insecure, and had written just fifteen string quartets, including an uncompleted twelfth, before dying in poverty and obscurity. He was at the time of his death just 31 years old. Haydn was a harbinger of the Classical style. His chamber works are distinguished by their formal elegance, apparent simplicity of form, gentle humour and freshness. Psychological tensions within the music are cheerfully and decisively settled. Schubert, an early exponent of Romanticism, occupies a very different soundworld, one frequently characterised by turbulence, uncertainty and sadness. ‘Schubert asks questions but rarely provides answers’ and reveals ‘a yearning towards acceptance rather than resolution’, the pianist Paul Lewis recently observed.

Haydn’s dramatic, subtle and witty String Quartet in F major Op.77, No.2 (amongst his last), and Schubert’s darkly mysterious final String Quartet in G major, D887, which dominated this recital, occupy disparate musical landscapes and require distinctly different interpretive and technical skills. The decision, then, to pair these contrasting works together in the same programme made perfect sense, and bookending Fanny Mendelssohn’s enchanting E-flat String Quartet, took us on a varied and richly rewarding musical journey, while showcasing the Takács’s sensitive musicianship, great versatility and superb ensemble playing.

The concert began with a crystalline account of the Haydn quartet. Its melodious opening, an Allegro moderato, was strikingly fresh and was followed by a jocund Minuet, more a rough and uneven country dance which would have set the feet tapping, had one failed to observe Wigmore Hall etiquette. After a refined and hymn-like Andante – ardently expressed and beautifully played – came an exuberant Finale in which, after a slow introduction, another joyous dance erupted.

Next came Fanny Mendelssohn’s only quartet, written in 1834 when she was 29 years old, and a seamless transition by the quartet from the classical formalities of the eighteenth century, to heart-on-sleeve expressiveness of mid-nineteenth century romanticism. The quartet in E-flat is, for want of a more gender accurate word, a masterpiece which, although woefully under-performed, is equal in stature to any chamber work written by Fanny’s younger brother Felix. The Takács Quartet combined to find a rich, mellow voice with which to express the yearnings of the first movement Adagio and followed it up with a gossamer-light account of the intricate fast-moving Allegretto. After a deeply touching Romanze, brimming with pathos, came an intricate quicksilver Finale, executed with breath-taking accuracy.

Schubert’s haunting Quartet in G major, D 887, occupied the second half. Almost symphonic in scale and running for approximately 50 minutes, it was completed in 10 days in 1826. Some commentators have likened its architectural grandeur to a Bruckner symphony. The first movement, an Allegro of epic proportions, has aptly been described by the musicologist Kai Christiansen as the beginning of ‘a mercurial and fundamental battle between dark and light which rages on to the very end’. The Takács’s shuddering tremolos and consoling triplets vividly conjured up an atmosphere of suspense. The drama continued to unfold in an Andante – scarily reminiscent of a Hitchcock film noir – in which quivering violins and viola alternated with a plaintive note of uncertainty introduced by the cello. The terrors of the second movement were quickly banished by the Scherzo – a delicately detailed musical fretwork, played very fast and with astonishing agility, while the final Allegro, a feverish, dance flecked with elements of dark humour, was delivered with dazzling rhythmic drive.

‘It’s not easy to know what we should play next’ declared first violinist Edward Dusinberre, before rewarding the enraptured audience with an encore: a shimmering rendition of the second movement of Ravel’s sensuous String Quartet in F major.

Chris Sallon

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