CMNZ: Takács Quartet

Takács Quartet

Friday 4 August 2017, 7:30pm, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

String Quartet No. 64 in D Major, op. 76, no. 5, Hob. III:79 – Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)       Whakatipua, op. 71 – Anthony Ritchie
Langsamer SatzAnton Webern
String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, op. 105, B. 193 –  Antonin Dvořák

Edward Dusinberre, violin
Károly Schranz, violin
Geraldine Walther, viola

András Fejér, cello

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

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The short story (tldr):

I had a lot of expectations for this concert – and they were sublimely met!

The whole concert had a satisfying configuration, from the playfulness and humour of Haydn, to the drama and poignancy of the Ritchie and Webern, to the passion of Dvořák, and in the encore, back to Haydn again. It was optimistic – none of the pieces had tragic, miserable, inconsolable themes and most were light hearted, enthusiastic, or passionate.

It was such a joy to behold – hear and see – the pleasure of these musicians making music.

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The long story:

I heard the Takács Quartet several years ago in the Wellington Town Hall and it was a magnificent concert. I even bought their CD in the foyer after the performance, and THAT (almost) never happens!

So, I had a lot of expectations for this concert – and they were sublimely met!

Given that the music spanned 210 years, purists could note that the performance style was consistently Romantic, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the concert. It was such a joy to behold – hear and see – the pleasure of these musicians making music.

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Haydn’s string quartet op. 76, no. 5 was a sparkling work. The first movement was essentially a ‘theme and variations’ – the downward ‘scale’ of the main theme of the Violin I was subjected to all sorts of ornamentations and arabesques. The ensemble took the rubato and the micro-pauses between the next note or phrase, to the limit. At the end of the movement, it seemed that they had another gear. It ‘took off’ and the excited violinists were struggling to stay in their chairs! The first movement  was so conclusive, I could have left the hall satisfied. The viola shone in the second movement, a Largo, and the third movement, Menuetto and Trio, was a delightful dance. The triple time was syncopated into duple time – a mix between hemiola and jazz! The last movement was scintillating. The tempo was furious and Haydn used the whole range of the instruments. As a listener, I was exhilarated but the players were so relaxed and elegant.

The group was superbly balanced – tonally and dynamically. The instruments characters were quite defined: Violin I brilliant (in the sense of luminous); Violin II mellow (in the sense of agreeable and matured); Viola dark (in the sense of profound); Cello resonant (rich and full-toned.) They gave a freshness, a vitality to the music and they communicated brilliantly, aware of what to expect for each other in every phrase. The ensemble, particularly the violins, were quite animated, choreographing their phrases and rhythmic impulses to the group. [Maybe they should explore the notion of standing with a podium for the cello, like the New Zealand String Quartet. It could be more comfortable and safer!]

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Whakatipua by Anthony Ritchie was an expansive work. Basically it was a threefold structure, ABA. In the first section the instruments were in tandem: in my imagination, the cello and viola were the ‘earth’ and the violins were the ‘atmosphere’. The phrases were separated by long pauses. It spoke of spaciousness, blue sky and a South Island alpine landscape. The B section was much more active – an insistent rhythm from the viola and the rest galloped away. It was reminiscent of a film score and very accessible –almost too accessible.  It returned to first motif again, reminding us of the ambient atmosphere around Queenstown/Tāhuna.

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The playing of first phrase of Langsamer Satz by Anton Webern was, in a word, gorgeous. The programme notes made mention of the relationship between Webern and Mahler, and I imagine, if Mahler had written a slow movement for a string quartet, it would be like this work.¹ The harmony was very thick and rich. The melody was transferred around the ensemble – the viola passed it on the violin II, then the cello passed back to the viola, more like an individual instrument with four players. The dynamics were dramatic – triple piano to triple forte. At one point, the violin I and viola had a paused note that went to nothingness – suspended – the hiatus was excruciating – and they began again from nothingness to exquisite harmonies. Magic.

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After the interval the Takács Quartet treated us to Dvořák‘s String Quartet No. 14. The first movement was a triumph – like the Haydn before, it was so conclusive, it could have ended there! But like the advertisement – “Wait! There’s more!”
The second was a Scherzo – a joyous romp but delicate like faceted crystal goblet. The third movement was my favourite. The character of the individual instruments was highlighted with their solos. It was Lento, but it was not mournful or anguished – more nostalgic or evocative.

In fact, the whole concert was optimistic – none of the pieces had tragic, miserable, inconsolable themes. Most were light hearted, enthusiastic, or passionate.

The cello dramatically began the fourth movement, but again, the movement was light hearted and effervescent. It had a odd ‘shape’  – at one point it seemed to be finishing – but it took off again. A Gypsy melody seized the first violin and the scurrying ensemble launched into a extended and extensive ‘Beethovian’ cadential phrase.

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Applause erupted, and at last the Quartet graced with an encore: the last movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.20, No 4. When I hear a Haydn string quartet, I always have a grin as some point in the performance. This movement was grin-worthy for the whole thing!  The tempo was very fast but precise and the second violin had frantic down bows accenting the joyful, ecstatic rhythm.

The choice was an immaculate moment. The concert had a satisfying configuration, from the playfulness and humour of Haydn, to the drama and poignancy of the Ritchie and Webern, to the passion of Dvořák, back to Haydn again. Perfect.

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¹ Mahler did write four chamber works. The piano featured in all of them: a Piano Quintet – lost (1875-1878); a Violin Sonata – lost (1875-1876); one movement of a Piano Quartet in A minor 1876; and a Piano Quartet in G minor – 36 bars, 1876-1878.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_compositions_by_Gustav_Mahler

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