The Celebrity Series initiated the second of the three Bartók quartet cycles that Boston is favored with this spring by presenting the Takács Quartet at Jordan Hall Thursday (the Chiara started their cycle a couple of weeks ago, and the Borromeos will be doing all six in one marathon night in May). One of the many fascinations of the Bartók quartets is that they are canonical while remaining challenging and to some extent unfamiliar—the challenge contributing to the unfamiliarity. A sense of the truly unexpected can still adhere to a Bartók cycle. It helps that the pieces span the full range of the composer’s writing career, and have a wildly kaleidoscopic palette of sound and techniques. On this evening the Takács presented the three odd numbered quartets, resisting any impulse to exploit Bartók’s writing for any but the most conservative interpretive purposes, playing with seriousness and expert musicianship. If there is a “traditional” approach to these pieces, this evening would be in that tradition. There were few entirely unexpected moments, but many places where the music took on a new and deeper character thanks to the Quartet’s sober reading. Furthermore, of the three foursomes who are offering the cycle this season, the Takács are the only ones who take a traditional approach to the score—the Chiaras are attempting to play them from memory, and the Borromeos read from computer scans of the full score, employing four foot-mice to facilitate the consequent frantic page turning.
The Takács Quartet is made up of Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz on violins, Geraldine Walther on viola and András Fejér on cello. It has been around for over 30 years—Schranz and Fejér having been with the quartet since its inception in 1975; Dusinberre joining in 1993 and Walther in 2005. In all three quartets they cultivated a dark sound with few edges, with rounded attacks and a tone that was warm and balanced, without drawing attention to its beauty. The pieces themselves have divergent personalities, the first typically seen as a late-romantic transitional piece, the third a tribute to Bach, and the fifth infused with Bartók’s beloved folk music. Rather than draw attention to the contrasts, the Takács played so as to draw attention to the similarities in the pieces, the through-line that ties them together. This made for highlights in surprising places. The first movement of the First Quartet, with its langorous dropping intervals and early 20th century harmonic pastiche rarely sounds this urgently passionate. Written after Bartók had left behind the Lisztian fustian of Kossuth, it was still written in the shadow of Debussy and Wagner. It might even be touched by early Schoenberg, but without the swoons and perfumes. On this evening it felt ardent but controlled, each falling interval signaling an emotional gesture that avoided the cliché of sighing. Unlike the Chiaras, who used an extended portamento throughout, the Takács played it straight, and still made it more emotionally intense.
Something similar happened in the Third Quartet, which has a touch of inscrutability about it. The Ebène Quartet, playing it about a month ago, used their incredible control of timbre to create moments of polished color or calibrated grotesquerie, making a chain of fascinating sounds that were alienated from one another. The Chiaras failed to memorize the Third, and sounded a bit lost in its architecture. In the Takács’ hands, what sounded scattered and alienated instead had the sense of material evolving so fast the composer could barely note it down – motives begin transforming almost as soon as they were first uttered. There was a strong sense of developmental argument in this performance, an organic unfolding.
Perhaps something was lost in this approach—the Quartet makes an attractive sound but not an adventurous one, and by the time we reached the Fifth Quartet I was wanting just a dash more experimentation. The repeated opening notes of the Fifth Quartet might have wanted more bite and definition. The more exuberant moments were played with the same sense of concentration and restraint as the introspective movements, and while the players never robbed Bartók’s writing of its inherent thrill, there was sense it was being understated. This could be because I was still moved by the Chiara’s score-free interpretation, which was thrilling in a way one always hopes for in live performance; our reviewer that night, David Patterson, found willful disregard for the text in some of their liberties, but I was not bothered by them. The Takács’ way with the spectral fourth movement of this Quartet was most effective, the music drifting by with all manner of sound production in play, Bartók’s inherent inventiveness needing no help to create an uncanny and disturbing environment.
The audience in Jordan Hall seemed a little small, but they were on the Quartet’s side from the very get-go, the ovation for the First Quartet already rapturous and filled with bravos; needless to say, the fiery end of the Fifth was enough to bring almost all of them to their feet.