If a symphony orchestra is an army, where order and discipline equal success, a string quartet is a family – intimate, tangled up in each other, intense. Music-making at this focused level can be as passionate as the most complex domestic battles or as serene as the peace of true harmony. A great quartet hears the same music, breathes the same air, plays as one mind.
On Saturday night, the Takacs Quartet demonstrated why it is one of the great quartets in the world. Formed in 1975 in Budapest, and enjoying its current membership since 2005, the quartet, along with guest pianist Marc-André Hamelin, presented a concert that joined spirited playing, thoughtful interpretations and an élan that only long, constant association can provide.
Although a quartet is the ultimate whole that is more than the sum of its parts, the members of the Takacs all commanded attention as individuals even as they played as a multi-armed, four-headed musical beast. Cellist Andras Fejer provided tight, accented playing as the foundation for the group, balancing the sweet, polished first violin of Edward Dusinberre. The quartet’s two inner voices, the violin of Karoly Schranz and especially the viola of Geraldine Walther, the group’s “newest” member, alternately provided intense melodic power and tight accompanying figures. But it was as an ensemble, reading each other’s musical minds, that the group provided its most intense moments.
And those came most often in the middle work of the program, Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1. Britten wrote this work in 1940 and 1941, exiled in America as the Second World War broke out. First violinist Dusinberre, in remarks before the work, suggested Britten wrote the piece to fend off his growing realization of the conflict’s horrors, but the work is full of the intimations of war. It begins with an eerie trio of high strings that might well be an air-raid siren and hardly ever relaxes its powerful grip on the audience’s emotions. Even the supposedly light-hearted, Haydnesque finale is full of deep and dark foreboding. The Takacs Quartet was so thoroughly committed to this fascinatingly original work that its contours were strikingly examined and portrayed.
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Piano Quintet (for piano and string quartet) at almost exactly the same time as the Britten quartet, in 1939 and 1940, but in a country then nervously spared, for a brief time, the trials and travails it would soon horribly experience. The Shostakovich is by no means a light work, but it fails to ignite the mind as Britten’s work does. Both these composers (who, 20 years later, would become fast friends) were dealing with the same compositional dilemma in the early 1940s – how to continue to make music with a tonal system left more or less for dead decades earlier by Arnold Schoenberg and his musical acolytes. On the basis of the two works presented on Saturday night, Britten was able to do so with more originality.
The famed Canadian pianist Hamelin joined the quartet for the Shostakovich, playing a part originally performed by the composer himself. Perhaps not to overshadow the strings, Shostakovich actually gave himself, and all future pianists, relatively little to do in this work, a shame given the immense virtuosity that Hamelin routinely displays. And I thought Hamelin played his part rather mechanically, which might have been his intention, contrasting the percussive sound of his instrument against the lyricism of the other four. But it often made for an odd juxtaposition of textures and musical philosophies.
The concert began, not with the anxiety and drama of the 20th century, but the sweetness of the 19th, although Franz Schubert’s Quartet No. 13 (Rosamunde), has many anguished moods of its own laced here and there between the charming melodies and beautiful textures. It was a clever choice to open a program that was eventually to traverse a more powerful and darker terrain.