United Kingdom Haydn and Beethoven: Tákacs Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes [violins], Richard O’Neill [viola] and András Fejér [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London 15.10.2023. (CSa)
Haydn – String Quartet in D, Op.71 (‘Apponyi’ No.2)
Sir Stephen Hough – Les Six Rencontres: Au boulevard, Au parc, A l’hôtel, Au théâtre, A l’église, Au marché
Beethoven – String Quartet No.8 in E minor, Op.59 No 2 ‘Razumovsky’
Performances by the internationally acclaimed Tákacs Quartet are invariably red-letter day events for chamber music afficionados, so their return last week to the platform of Wigmore Hall after an interval of five months in a programme of works by Haydn, Beethoven and Stephen Hough had a distinctly celebratory feel.
It was a good choice for the Tákacs Quartet to open the programme with Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op.71, No.2. Written in 1793, this quartet was one of two sets dedicated to Count Apponyi, the wealthy Viennese music lover after whom they were named. Haydn had now established himself as Europe’s greatest composer and, encouraged by the London based impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon, sought to reach his devoted fans with novel, adventurous and more extrovert compositions. As a consequence, these works were specifically intended for the music-loving public in large concert venues, such as those in Hanover Square rather than for aristocrats in the excluding intimacy of their drawing-rooms. Op.71 No.2 has been described as more ‘symphonic’ and ‘romantic’ than its predecessors, a quality given full expression by the group in this rich and vital performance. From the first slow introductory fanfare of the opening movement Allegro, the Tákacs played with wonderful freshness and dynamism. The first violin’s virtuosic solo passages (written specifically for Salomon) were intoned by Edward Dusinberre with diamond tipped precision, while second violin, viola and cello – communicating with gentle smiles and supportive glances – maintained the underlying conversation with buoyancy and brio. A songful, soulful Adagio of the utmost tenderness and grace was followed by a witty, humorous and startlingly surprising account of the Menuetto, while the Finale, peppered with off-beat accents, brought Haydn’s little masterpiece to a lively conclusion.
Next came a work specially commissioned from the quartet’s erstwhile collaborator, the concert pianist and composer Sir Stephen Hough. Les Six Rencontres is a string quartet comprising six short movements, each imagining an encounter with members of Les Six. They were a group of Montmartre based composers who, under the tutelage of Jean Cocteau, were active in Paris in the 1920s. Each movement is intended to represent an imaginary meeting with musical luminaries such as Poulenc, Honegger, Tailleferre, Auric, Durey and Milhaud and in each, Hough sketches atmospheric images intended to suggest place and time. Hough points out that he has focused a ‘burlesque lens’ on French life after the catastrophe of the First World War. The first movement entitled Au Boulevard contains ‘Stravinskian spikes that elbow across the four instruments’ whereas A l’hôtel opens with ‘a bustling fugato’. He describes A l’église as ‘a serene hymn’ played on muted strings, whilst the melody in Au marché moves briskly and busily, like shoppers on market day. This is certainly a stylish composition, superbly played, but one with a quintessentially English feel – more like a visit to post 1918 Deauville in the company of Michael Tippett or Lennox Berkeley.
The second half of the concert was devoted to one work, Beethoven’s String Quartet No.8 in E, Op. 59 No.2, the second of three that Beethoven dedicated to his patron the diplomat Prince Andrey Razumovsky. The account of the Allegro by the Tákacs Quartet was masterfully controlled: infused with gripping urgency and passion, but never melodramatic. The slow movement, a contemplative Adagio, was deeply expressive and beautifully shaped, the textures bright and the tone lustrous. A fretwork of intricately executed interplay marked the beginning of the Scherzo followed by a storm-tossed Russian-themed trio. Thrilling playing here, safely anchored by András Fejér’s dexterous cello. The Finale was played with power and speed as a Presto should, and the final rondo, an ecstatic extended confirmation of Beethovenian joy. The wildly cheering audience had just cause to celebrate.