The Celebrity Series brought the Takács Quartet back to Boston for the 10th time Friday. Thirty years into its existence, the quartet may fairly be called legendary, collecting honors ranging from the Order of Merit Commander’s Cross of the Republic of Hungary, awarded to each player individually, to the Gramophone Hall of Fame, the first quartet so honored (the Alban Berg has since joined them). There’s no news to report about the foursome’s musicianship, a polished, blended sound with transparent textures. Takács can muster impressive force, but in the main its measured and balanced personality remains free of idiosyncrasy. With such reliability, the interest resides in programming and the ensuing response. At Jordan Hall, three very different works were on order: Haydn Op. 74 No. 1; a new piece by the 30-year-old Yale graduate and Brooklyn resident Timo Andres; and the Dvořák Quartet No. 14.
The merits of the Haydn resided in fine attention to detail: Edward Dusinberre’s violin was appropriately forward, leading the way but not dominating, the fast passages effortless and fluid, the first movement’s striking opening intervals pure and crystalline. Much of the interest in the second movement came from tone: Dusinberre and second violinist Károly Schranz were subtly different, Schranz favoring a smoother tone that relied on dynamics for projection, Dusinberre allowing himself a slightly tart sound to cut through. Cellist András Fejér and violist Geraldine Walther, by contrast, played almost as one large instrument, with a smooth spectrum of sound. But this work of Haydn’s 60s, written as he finally received international acclaim and freed himself from bonds domestic and otherwise, wanted something more than fine craftsmanship. The quartets of the period have something of the splash and spirit of the late symphonies, and were intended for the London audience, susceptible to spectacle. Here something boisterous was missing: not exactly a sense of humor, but high spirits, fully realized only in the parody of bagpipes in the finale.
Timo Andres is billed as “one of the leading voices of the millennial generation of musicians,” whose debut recording came out on Nonesuch in 2010. His Strong Language (2015) was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Shriver Hall (Baltimore) for the Takács. The composer says that the title comes from the fact that the piece “has three movements and exactly three musical ideas.” This is understatement: the work shows much more inventiveness than that. The title does miss the mark, however, as the language itself is not especially strong. The work received both a program note and an introduction from Dusinberre on stage. This practice of giving an explanation of new work has started to trouble me, since often it only repeats what has been printed and seems to be done either to reassure the audience of the nonthreatening nature of the work or to warn them what is about to happen. Dusinberre did both, referring to the “strangeness” of some of the sounds, quoting the composer’s phrase “sonic detritus” to explain first movement material, but also promising us “beautiful melody” to come. In the event, the work is promising and interesting, but hardly a challenge. The first movement, Middens, begins with a rapid running figure in a harmonic language that conjured up both Bach and New Age. The “detritus” begins with isolated pizzicatos. After a stop we hear a fascinating chorale made up of glissandi; then the figure resumes, and a variety of other sounds accumulate. There’s a growing sense of anger and frustration, as if the figure wants to escape but cannot. But the stakes are fairly low; the tension does not beg for release. At times I was reminded by the sound worlds Michael Nyman conjures up, though Andres’s work is far less repetitive than that older minimalist. The second movement, “Origin Story,” starts as a slow, dense texture in D minor that thickens further and speeds up: the instruments play more or less constantly together, with little relief, and the effect was rather dull and oppressive. The opening of the final movement, “Gentle Cycling”, was by far the most interesting moment, a collection of plucked and struck sounds that begged for elaboration but that were instead supplanted by a broad, banal melody. The return of the New Age Bach figure from the first movement felt pat and uninspired. The first movement provided a fine demonstration of the Takács’s fluency, the opening of the third a showpiece of clarity and precise balance. But I’m afraid Strong Language only moderately diverted.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the Dvořák, a late work to which I’ve never much warmed. The finale continued stale and academic until its final pages, although the Takács at times had me reconsidering that assessment, especially since the preceding movements entirely convinced. The extrovert quality I missed in the Haydn was fully present in the reading of the first movement, with passion that never thickened or overpowered. The complex interlocking rhythms of the second movement were intoxicating, the singing melodies of the third gorgeous, and the weird harmonic detours late in that movement uncanny but fully integrated. That last movement still strikes me as page after page of 16th notes, their permutations professionally executed but overextended. The players did manage to build up the tension, and stuck their landing in that gale of notes. The large crowd proclaimed warm and prolonged gratitude.