The Celebrity Series of Boston invited an old favorite, the Takács String Quartet, to a near capacity crowd at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday night. The compelling program consisted of Mozart’s Quartet in G Major, K.387; Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122, and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131. The Takács Quartet stunning, cunningly, and craftily hit all three out of the park.
The quartet has been playing since 1975, and with the current personnel since 2005. When I first heard this ensemble in concert at the Aspen Music Festival in 2008, their take on Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3 Quartet and the Franck Piano Quintet felt flat and uninvolving, while in Janáček’s Quartet No. 2 they found something revelatory, transforming a work that had always struck me as thorny and forbidding into a vivid, vital story. In their 2012 appearance in the Celebrity Series (reviewed here), I expressed disappointment with equally flat performances of Haydn’s Op. 76, No. 5 and Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartets, though they took flight with the Shostakovich Piano Quintet. This led me to wonder if this group should commit to 20th and 21st century repertoire, and steer clear of the core Viennese repertoire.
On Friday, my doubts vanished. Many of the things that I wrote in 2012 regarding the individual players’ skills and how they interact, still pertain. It is curious that while the group plays with impressive rhythmic drive, the chords lack the buzzing overtones and partials that you hear with groups like the Borromeos, the Lindsays, or the Fitzwilliams.
But they approached the quartets on Friday night in a novel way. If you look at the score of Mozart’s K.387 (HERE), you’ll see the four strings start forte, then abruptly turn piano at the second measure. Many performances downplay the dynamic contrast, but the Takács exaggerated the sonic shift, then returned to forte in measure 3, and suddenly piano again in measure 4. The quartet used this type of striking dynamic contouring again and again, observing markings with fastidious discipline, and lending phrases a recognizable shape. In addition, each voice in the fugato that opens the fourth movement of the Mozart projected clearly and distinctly, and all of K.387 had a character and specificity that I have never heard before in a range of performances and recordings.
Shostakovich wrote his String Quartet No. 11 in 1966, long after the struggles with Stalin that produced the middle-period symphonies, which the Boston Symphony has been offering over the past four seasons. Those epic-scale works take ideas and rework them at seemingly interminable length. In contrast, this seven-movement quartet with seven distinct ideas, a cryptically moves from one to the next just as they have registered. The Takács Quartet is ideal for Shostakovich’s music, using the same dynamic contouring to render the counterpoint of the opening Introduction clearly. Second violinist Károly Schranz and violist Geraldine Walther gave rhythmic drive to Shostakovich’s repeated-note ostinatos of the second movement Scherzo. The group made the most of crunchy dissonances in the Recitative. And first violinist Edward Dusinberre and cellist András Fejér tore through Shostakovich’s demented take on “Flight of the Bumblebee” in the fourth movement Etude with rhythmic point and technical flair. The sixth movement Elegy honored Vasily Shirinsky, second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet (which premiered almost all of the Shostakovich quartets) and included a movingly bleak dirge duet between Dusinberre and Schranz. And for the Finale, I thought I recognized motifs from the preceding six movements, thanks to the Takács’s dynamic characterization. The quartet ended as Dusinberre held an achingly high sustained note that slowly faded away, garnering a well-earned ovation.
That Shostakovich lead-in perfectly to Beethoven’s woolly, weird Op. 131. The 14th of Beethoven’s sixteen (completed in 1826), reflects the culmination of Beethoven’s late style. The quartet’s series of seven interlinked movements make for a curious structural parallel to the Shostakovich. And with its angular, chromatic opening fugue, its introduction of unorthodox playing techniques like high harmonics, and its fierce difficulty, Op. 131 has an air of the avant grade— too modern for its own time. The foursome showed the same fiercely disciplined dynamic shaping in the opening fugue with remarkable contrapuntal clarity. Whipcrack timing and a jaunty insouciance characterized the second movement Allegro motto vivace. The series of dramatic string chords that punctuate the recitative-like third movement Allegro moderato sound identical in phrasing and dynamics in most performances, but the Takács gave each chord a distinct shape and direction. And the group maintained a steady pulse through the central Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile, so that the structure of the theme and variations was always evident. The penultimate variation, in homophonic chords, conveyed the shaping and direction of a sung church hymn, and the final statement started with a judicious pregnant pause, ending with bowed and plucked strings in perfect balance.
The Scherzo-like fifth movement Presto bustled with virtuosic energy; even repeated notes got dynamic shape and direction. The lyric Trio-like central section had a lovely contrast of lyric melody strings and a burbling, almost Shostakovichian motor motif in other strings, only to have the parts switch. A series of rapid fire exchanged pizzicato moments led the transition back to the Scherzo section twice. In the Coda, the quartet leaped seamlessly up into high harmonics, then slowly worked their way back down the scale and up from pianissimo to fortissimo, earning some applause from the audience at the movement’s end. But there was more: the short sixth movement Adagio quasi un poco andante burned with a soulful intensity, and the final Allegro exploded with ferocious vigor. The ensemble continued to shape, though with a seething restlessness. The final unison exclamation put a magnificent cap on the evening.
March has been a remarkable month for experiencing late Beethoven. The Takács used stark contrast and deliberate shaping of dynamics to lend clarity to Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven’s thorniest late quartet. On the preceding Friday in Jordan Hall, I heard the Cantata Singers and Ensemble use a similar kind of dynamic shaping and sonic balance to render Beethoven’s even thornier Missa Solemnis (reviewed here) with breathtaking clarity and transparency. And this coming Friday, A Far Cry and the Miró Quartet will present a novel arrangement of Beethoven’s OP. 135, his final string quartet.
The Takács has been touring this program with a fistful of other major works since September and will continue through May. Celebrity Series of Boston will bring bass-baritone Eric Owens and tenor Lawrence Brownlee to Jordan Hall on Saturday, April 7th.
James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.