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Celebrity and Takács Raise the Bar


The Takács Quartet (file photo)
The Takács Quartet (file photo)

Celebrity Series raised the bar for Bartók by presenting the Takács Quartet in Béla’s even-numbered string quartets last night at Jordan Hall;  as they complete their cycle of all the six, Takács illustrated the implausible. Describing with any aptness what these four artists accomplished makes for quite a task. Their playing, entirely natural and polished, bares experience of years of formulation. Their act of dedication apparently leaves nothing further to be integrated.

After hearing them, who could disagree with a description coming from the concert’s brochure: “Recognized as one of the world’s great ensembles, the Takács Quartet plays with a unique blend of drama, warmth, and humor, combining four distinct musical personalities to bring fresh insights to the string quartet repertoire.”

Long acquainted with Bartok’s standalone quartets, I am able, at least, to report with confidence  on my experience of last evening with this quartet of violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér. Never a doubt, these four consummate musicians kept keen focus on Bartók.

But of the six quartets, my very most favorite is the fourth. Takács Quartet produced an interior expression profoundly unifying Bartok’s supremely variegated work; outer movements arch over an interior symmetry, in which a nocturnal center is flanked by whirling muted strings on one side and rapidly plucked strings on the other.

Embracing amalgamation, Takács delved to unfathomable depths revealing all sorts of things about the composer and his art, many that had been left unexplained up until their remarkable rendering. The clearest, most notable example of this could very well be the way Takács delivered the finalizing statement of Bartok’s 1928 arching composition. Takács made of it a period, punctuating the close of this, the fourth quartet, like no other interpretations. I had always come to know this concluding sound as an exclamation point, an enunciation that increasingly felt inflated. For years, I wondered why the artful, yet down to earth, folk-influenced Bartók would feel it necessary to fall into the trap of giving that good old bang to the end of his work in order to bring the audience to their feet or to a bravo. Finally, it was Takács Quartet who spoke the truth.

Can anybody play Bartók string quartets any better than the Takács Quartet?  What else comes to mind in thinking about such a question is the matter of excess. Takács’s demeanor convinced us that they knew their audience, those lucky enough to be attending this benchmark event from the Celebrity Series of Boston—now in its 75th year. Leanness marked their hands and bodies in motion. The physical action required to yield this or that specificity of sound, this or that nuance, was altogether observable and there was zero excess.

As well, Takács took full advantage of Jordan Hall’s superb acoustics and refined ambience. Ending the second quartet, two rounded tympani-like “booms” from plucked lower strings of viola and cello resonated opulently in the big space—one that surprises chamber music lovers who are newcomers to the venue.

And for some, what about the “fear factor” that still comes with the name of Bartók, his string quartets, never mind a program devoted to them? The Takács Quartet dispelled all that.  I would interpret the interaction of audience and performers as being one of appreciation for this singularly elevating and enriching encounter.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. “Can anybody play Bartók string quartets any better than the Takács Quartet?”

    It’s very possible the answer is no, at least based on an illuminating performance of the Janáček Quartet #2 that I heard the Takács play in Aspen a few years ago. Between that and last year’s DSCH Piano Quintet, I’d have to say they make the case for 20th century masterworks with vigor and verve.

    Having said that, Boston this year suffers from an embarrassment of Bartókian riches, between the Chiara dividing the six quartets into two evenings, this Takács performance … and the Borromeos, taking a turn (for free!) at Jordan Hall on May 14. So, we get to hear for ourselves!

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — April 13, 2014 at 10:47 pm

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