Takács Quartet at their peak in wide-ranging program

Sat Oct 18, 2014 at 1:50 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Takács Quartet at their peak in wide-ranging program
The Takács Quartet performed music of Haydn, Debussy and Franck Thursday night at Symphony Center.

With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra departing this week for another European tour, it was the Takács Quartet that instead took the stage Thursday night at Orchestra Hall. Yet with the degree of interpretive insight and complete sympathy displayed by this storied chamber ensemble, it’s unlikely anyone went home disappointed.

The Takács Quartet has gone through several manifestations in its four-decade history. It began as an all-Hungarian ensemble in 1975, distinguished for the playing of its compatriot Bela Bartok. With two original members replaced by a pair of gifted British musicians (first violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Roger Tapping) the Takács achieved even greater international renown, for their Beethoven particularly.

Yet superb as the earlier Takács personnel were, hearing the group perform Thursday night, it’s hard not to think that the current Takács lineup (violinists Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér) is the finest team to date.  Certainly the remarkable playing Thursday showed a world-class ensemble at the height of its powers.

The bleaching of upper string frequencies caused by the 1997 renovation has made Orchestra Hall an inhospitable venue for string quartets. Yet with its lean, slightly tart sonority, the Takács Quartet fared better than most.

Music of Haydn seems to be finally working its way back into the regular repertory, his string quartets in particular. The performance of Haydn’s Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 64, no. 3 led off the program in fine, Classical style.

The humor and gracious spirit of the opening movement were delightful in this light and vivacious performance, the refined reverie of the ensuing Adagio aided by Dusinberre’s sweet-toned violin. The galumphing Scherzo and an uncommonly witty finale rounded off the performance in high style. Haydn’s quirky dynamic flips and rhythmic curve balls made full impact for the players’ close attention to the markings.

Fine as the Haydn was, the Takács performance of the ensuing Debussy String Quartet was simply extraordinary. Even in a chamber chestnut as familiar as this, the players brought a rare feeling of fresh discovery.

There was a relaxed yet inevitable flow and a rightness to this performance throughout. All the composer’s restless, mercurial qualities were manifest yet with nothing overstated or oversold. Dusinberre and colleagues brought the fleeting snatches of lyricism into focus yet with an essential Gallic reticence, as well as the jumpy caprice of the second movement.

In the Andantino, Geraldine Walther’s viola so perfectly echoed Karoly Schranz’s opening violin phrase in color and timbre that it sounded uncannily like the same player and instrument. The players brought out the aching nostalgia of this music with wonderful ease and lightness, Walther’s eloquent viola in particular. The final movement captured the off-center energy and restless unease perfectly in a truly memorable performance.

Marc-Andre Hamelin
Marc-Andre Hamelin

The rarity of the evening came after intermission, when Marc-Andre Hamelin joined the Takács members for Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet.

Though cast in just three movements, Franck’s quintet is a big work, the opening movement spanning over a quarter-hour. It’s hard to account for the neglect of Franck’s quintet. Perhaps the finale with its emphasis on running figurations is not as inspired as the first two movements. But this is a well-crafted, richly melodic and rewarding work, contemporaneous with the Belgian composer’s better-known Violin Sonata and Symphony in D minor.

All five musicians were attuned to the work’s surging chromaticism and melancholy. The Takács members adjusted to Franck with a warmer, deeper sonority, and seemed just as at home in the darkly hued Romanticism of Franck as in Haydn or Debussy. Hamelin proved a simpatico colleague, his nimble yet muscular keyboard playing fully in synch with the quartet. The pianist illuminated the moments of spare, broken reflection especially well.

The musicians brought a dark lushness of tone to the central Lento, Dusinberre and Hamelin sensitive in their conversational passages, and the performance closed with a fiery yet unrushed finale, equal parts power and precision. No encore was offered but one seemed unnecessary after such an outstanding evening of chamber music.

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