Boston’s own pianist Marc-André Hamelin joined the Takács Quartet for the foursome’s seventh Celebrity Series performance at Jordan Hall in a program they have been touring with for about three weeks. At last night’s penultimate iteration, they offered puzzling interpretations of two 19th century chestnuts, and a dazzling take on the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.
The quartet was founded by four schoolmates at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest in 1975. Second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér have stayed in the group for nearly four decades; first violinist Edward Dusinberre joined them in 1993 and violist Geraldine Walther joined in 2005. This latest version of the quartet gained accolades from the very start for their precision ensemble, and the first half performances of Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, no. 5 and Schubert’s String Quartet in A Minor, D. 804 demonstrated many of their characteristic skills. The Takács played with a superbly balanced sound, each of the four players individual and particular, yet somehow blending into an organic whole, breathing and phrasing as with one suave voice, handing off motifs so seamlessly you’d have to watch carefully to know someone else had started playing, playing fast homophonic passages in impressive lockstep, and delighting in unexpected harmonic twists, milking deceptive cadences for all they were worth.
Individual playing was memorably fine. Dusinberre doesn’t dominate the proceedings like some first violinists do, but can float high soaring lines with flawless intonation while leaving enough room for his partners to make their mark beneath. He phrased elegantly and backed into cadential figures with tasteful style. Schranz is no shrinking violet second violinist; he articulated the nearly minimalist repeated figurations of the Schubert outer movements with clarity and vigor, and tossed off bravura embellishments in the recapitulation of the Haydn with élan. Walther offered ravishing, burnished viola tone, leading and accompanying with equal skill. And Fejér is fun to watch, eyeing Walther to his left and the violinists to his right from the neck of his cello and digging into his part with gusto (maybe a bit too much gusto in the Trio of the Haydn quartet, where a rhythmically tricky figure came off muddy).
Unfortunately, for some reason, the first two works of the concert never really took flight for me. The ensemble was impressive, to be certain, but nothing in the first half got much louder than mezzoforte, and the emotional range of the playing felt similarly constricted. They played beautifully in tune with one another, but I didn’t hear the ringing open fifths that sound constantly from groups like the Borromeos, the Lindsays, or the Fitzwilliams. The Schubert’s first movement theme sounds achingly beautiful, tinged with songful melancholy, from the Busch Quartet or the Quatour Mosaïques; tonight it sounded like just another pretty tune. And they observed few of the exposition repeats in either the Haydn or the Schubert, as though they were in a hurry to get through these pieces. The group came to life a few times, like in the minor key detours of the first movement of the Haydn, the fast and furious finale of the Haydn, and the sudden switches in the Schubert C-Major slow movement to unexpected chords in E Major and E-flat Major (where I picked up on ringing open fifth overtones for the first time). But for the most part, the first half felt somewhat flat.
When Hamelin took the stage with the Quartet for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, the dynamic changed. From the first ensemble entry in the opening Prelude, the Takács Quartet were digging in, leaning into their instruments and playing with riveting passion and commitment. The individual string players’ strengths could all still be heard, but phrases moved with direction and purpose, the dynamic range was much wider, and the ensemble captured Shostakovich’s dizzying array of quirky moods and styles. That opening Prelude alternated between viola and violin duets with the piano, piano trio, and quintet. The second movement Fugue played up Shostakovich’s debt to Bach, the various strains of five and six part counterpoint emerging with Glenn Gould-like clarity, and a beautifully restrained pianissimo pedal point from cellist Fejér anchoring a shimmering hushed finish from the other strings. The third movement Scherzo veered giddily between Shostakovichian icy sardonics and jazz/pop combo, Fejér plucking out a string bass line with gusto. For the fourth movement Intermezzo, Dusinberre played with the kind of soulful melancholy that I missed in the Schubert, and finished with a stunningly naked, exposed, but always steady high harmonic line. The Finale sparkled, bubbled and charmed, and vanished at its end like some Soviet will-o-the-wisp.
I know of Hamelin as a pianist who plays knuckle-bustingly difficult solo piano repertoire, but had not heard him play chamber music before. This was a revelation; he made the most out of the part which Shostakovich wrote for himself to play, drawing a gorgeous tone with ringing, clear bass from Jordan Hall’s Steinway. But he melded with the ensemble gorgeously also, partnering ably with Walther and Dusinberre in the Prelude, blending into the sequence with Schranz and Walther in the Fugue seamlessly, decorating the Intermezzo with artfully colored, atmospheric high-end figurations that summoned images of icicles melting in the winter sun. He proved to be an ideal chamber musician, playing forcefully without drowning out his partners. As a group, it made for a memorable performance of the Quintet; I hope they record it as a group to go along with their recording of the Schumann Quintet.
The Takács Quartet will continue with Hamelin for one further performance in this tour, on Sunday in San Francisco. The Celebrity Series returns with the Chucho Valdés Quintet at the Berklee Performance Center on November 29, a Chanticleer Christmas at NEC’s Jordan Hall on November 30, and the Emerson String Quartet at Jordan Hall on December 2.