The Takács Quartet open UC season with memorable Haydn and Britten

Sat Oct 06, 2012 at 11:52 am

By Kyle MacMillan

The Takács Quartet performed works of Haydn, Britten and Dvořák Friday night at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. Photo: Keith Saunders

The Takács Quartet long ago assured itself a prominent place in the history of this essential instrumental combination.

Adding to an already long list of honors and awards, the 37-year-old ensemble was the only string quartet to be inducted earlier this year into Gramophone magazine’s new hall of fame. Such accolades only add to the expectations any time the Takács comes to town, and again Friday evening, opening the University of Chicago Presents concert series at Mandel Hall, it more than lived up to them.

Aside from the consistently superlative technique that can just be taken for granted at this point, the quartet plays with uncommon sensitivity and refinement, drawing forth all the required muscularity and punch when necessary.
It began Friday’s program with a deft, spirited take on Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 76, No. 5. Instead of imposing some over-romanticized interpretation, the ensemble just let the honesty and directness of this music speak on its own terms. There was much to admire throughout, from the gracious brio of the first movement to the rhythmic drive and vernacular feel of the last.

The most memorable moment, though, was the spellbinding slow movement, where the quartet found just the right tempo and maintained a beautiful, unwavering sense of line. The Takács’ personnel has remained the same since 2005, when violist Geraldine Walther replaced Roger Tapping, and the members display an instinctive affinity for each other’s playing. The four players were totally in the moment, watching and listening to each other and playing with an extraordinarily nuanced cohesion as they quietly revealed the music’s gentle pathos in as fine a performance of this work as one is likely ever to hear.

Equally powerful in a very different way was the evening’s centerpiece, Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 36, No. 2, written in 1945 at the close of World War II. As first violinist Edward Dusinberre noted in his eloquent introduction, the great 20th-century composer completed the quartet just six months after his operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes, and that work and its potent emotions had an important influence on this piece.

The quartet was written in honor of the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, and though Britten does not directly quote from the master’s music, he nonetheless borrowed certain structures, rhythms and other elements. But it in no way sounds like a baroque pastiche. Indeed, this is a thoroughly modern work, as becomes immediately evident in the tense first movement, with its sudden shifts in mood, eerie glissandos and other strange sounds—all realized to maximum effect by the Takács. The ensemble attacked the ensuing quick scherzo, capturing the oddly playful and slightly crazed quality of this peculiar movement.

The players ended the work with an emotionally devastating performance of the stark and poignant third movement, which draws on a chaconne by Purcell. The music consists of 21 variations with each set divided by a cadenza, none more memorable than that for cello, as rendered in the introspective, penetrating solo of András Fejér. The ensemble brought dramatic bite and deep feeling to this forlorn, dissonant, almost violent movement, crowning what was altogether a towering interpretative accomplishment.

The evening concluded with Antonin Dvořák’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, No. 12, “American,” which he wrote in 1893 during a summer stay in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. The Takács was strong here as well, from its bright, festive take on the first movement to the rollicking finale. Of special note was Dusinberre’s solo in the soulful slow movement, where his abundant technical facility and expressive authority was richly on view. Here and throughout the evening, it was clear that he is the Takács’ artistic leader and interpretative anchor.

Posted in Performances

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