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17.10.04

Amazing Audial Alliteration: Borodin, Bartók, Beethoven

The night before the Takács Quartet opened the Musical Evening Series at the Corcoran Gallery, the Corcoran's Chairman of the Board, Otto J. Ruesch, passed away. The Takacs Quartet consequently moved the 2nd Borodin Quartet in front of Bartok's 3rd. The jaunty and aggressive moods would surely have been appropriate in this concert dedicated to parting founder and chair of the Musical Evening Series Jane Alper.

The sumptuous and lyrical Borodin (buy it from Amazon) was appropriate and delicious to boot. Long, beautiful musical threads, with a warm, life-affirming quality easily make this 1881 work one of the string quartet marvels of that time. That Borodin does not get his proper due is our fault, not his! Like too-beautiful chamber music of the Classical and Romantic periods sometimes can, the Borodin shepherded a few folk towards sweet dreams.

Not to worry though: Bartók came to the rescue. If you can as much as close your eyes during that work (especially when performed with the raw power, vivacious energy, and palpable joy as the Takács Quartet does) you should check your pulse. Perfectly coordinated, playfully lilting at times, biting on the attacks, somber one second, furious the next, threatening... this work has it all, eliciting about every sound imaginable from a violin short of using a table saw on it.

If you haven't seen second violinist Károly Schanz's hair flop madly during the spiccato passages, you just haven't seen Bartók at his best and Edward Dusinberre (first violinist) couldn't contain the fun he has with Bartók, even if he tried. Reading Bartók off the quartet's faces is an intractable part of their performance that converts even newcomers to the Hungarian composer's allegedly ‘difficult’ music. That the playing itself is just as superb as the visual image can be verified through their outstanding recordings. (Note: Listen to Bartók only on headphones with the volume up, lest you lose most of the music's excitement!)

Beethoven's quartet, op. 131—the mother of all string quartets to come—is 180 years old and still eerily modern, especially in its intense, tiered opening. It was the substantial offering of the second half of the concert. Part of their perennial Beethoven cycle (they play one in New York this year and are going to finish the last third of one in Cleveland), op. 131 runs well within their musical system and should appear early next year on Decca to continue, if not finish, their traversal of these masterpieces on record. Feeling, intonation, and expressiveness were all on par with the quality of the work itself, which is to say, completely beyond reproach.

While many classical music listeners draw the line not at but before late Beethoven (a cardinal and unforgivable sin, if you ask me), I suggest that they, too, would have enjoyed or even ‘understood’ Beethoven’s mature work as presented tonight. Admittedly though, increased coughing betrayed the fact that these works can be taxing on people's concentration, especially towards the end of a program. In fact, I think it isn't a very good idea to program Bartók before Beethoven, because the latter keeps you on the edge of your seat, anyway, while the former needs all the attention the audience can muster on their own. The excuse that the ‘difficult’ piece needs to be sandwiched so that people won't run away after the ‘popular’ item just doesn't cut it with string quartets and quasi-private, enthusiastic audiences like at the Corcoran.

András Fejér offered a pulsing and stable center of gravity with his cello while Roger Tapping had a few wistful moments amid his otherwise rather tame Beethoven playing.

The following champagne reception in honor of Mme. Alper then gave me the opportunity to shamelessly cast aside objectivity and become the groupie I really am—and nothing stopped me from embarrassing myself in my hunt for the autographs of the four gentlemen on the Beethoven-disc covers.

The Bartók may have been more appropriate, given that I find their playing in that very simply unparalleled, but before leaving I couldn't find theirs and asking them to sign the Chilingirian or Emerson copies (both very worthy versions in their own right) would have been awkward, to say the least. With the ink dry, the champagne drunk, I was off home after yet another sublime evening of great music, looking forward to the next event at the Corcoran, perhaps the "best place in Washington to hear chamber music," indeed.

Available from Amazon:

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Béla Bartók: The 6 String Quartets, Takács Quartet
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L.v.Beethoven: Early String Quartets op. 18, Takács Quartet
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L.v.Beethoven: Middle String Quartets "Razumovsky" op.59 1-3, "Harp" op.74, Takács Quartet

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