Takács Quartet delivers sterling performances at Ravinia

Mon Aug 15, 2011 at 11:59 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Takács Quartet performed music of Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn Sunday night at Ravinia. Photo: Peter Smith

The headline event Sunday at Ravinia was the local debut of Rufus Wainwright’s symphonic song cycle Five Shakespeare Sonnets with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Having caught the world premiere in San Francisco last fall, I took a pass and opted instead for the less hyped but more substantive second part of the double bill, with the return of the Takács Quartet Sunday evening at the Martin Theatre.

The Takács is justly celebrated for its Beethoven performances and their rendering of the composer’s penultimate work in the genre, the Quartet in C-sharp minor, showed that their bona fides remain sterling in this repertoire.

This was my first encounter with the group since violist Geraldine Walther replaced Roger Tapping in 2005. Some fleeting moments of wayward intonation apart, Walther appears to have fit in with her colleagues smoothly and is now a fully integral member of the group.

Beethoven’s Op. 131 is cast on a large canvas, the seven movements — played without pause — covering a bracing variety of expression and making intense demands on all four musicians.

I’ve heard more incisive performances of this quartet from the ensemble, but, by any standard, this was supremely idiomatic and sympathetic Beethoven playing. First violinist Edward Dusinberre’s style reflects the ensemble on the whole, rugged and dynamic with an astringent tartness and sweet-toned on top.

The spare, withdrawn opening fugue had the requisite otherworldly quality, contrasting pointedly with the ensuing lively accents of the brief Allegro molto vivace. The large-scale central Andante could have used tauter concentration at times but the Takács displayed its storied ability to seamlessly encompass Beethoven’s violent contrasts with strikingly nuanced dynamic detailing. The Presto went like the wind, as the players batted fragments back and forth. The second Adagio had apt tenderness and the concluding Allegro wedded whirlwind energy with gravitas.

Superb as the Beethoven was, the finest performance of the evening came with Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13.

Despite the numbering, this was Mendelssohn’s first published quartet and the work remains an astonishing achievement for an 18-year-old, even one as prodigiously gifted as Mendelssohn. The shadow of Beethoven looms, to be sure, but the depth and dark eloquence of this music is startling.

That expressive richness was made clear at once in the bleak concentration of the slow introduction, and the storm-tossed drama of the ensuing Allegro, thrown off by the musicians with jarring intensity. The Adagio is the heart of this work and the Takács members were at their finest here, conveying the searching melancholy with lyric grace and sensitivity. The lilting accents of the Intermezzo led into the exhilarating conclusion with the valedictory coda — a nod to the recently deceased Beethoven by the teenage Mendelssohn — providing just the right sense of uneasy solace.

The program led off with Mozart’s Quartet in D major, K. 575. The Takács are regarded more for edge-of-the seat intensity then tonal gleam but the group assayed this score with lean, elegant playing that was wholly in synch with this late Mozart quartet — bringing an easy lyric grace to the slow movement and just the right playful light virtuosity to the Allegretto finale.

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