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14.10.07

Takács Quartet at Wolf Trap

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but our Takács Quartet withdrawal symptoms were well past night sweats and nervous tics. The last time we reviewed the esteemed quartet, formerly of Hungary and now based in Boulder, Colo., it was at the Corcoran in 2006, a year and a half ago. Our record at Ionarts will show that we are willing to drive pretty far to hear this string quartet, and on Friday that meant a trip out to the Barns at Wolf Trap (yet another Ionarts exclusive review). The occasion was Founder's Day, in honor of 1966 donation, by Catherine Filene Shouse, of the land that would become the first U.S. national park for the performing arts.

The concert opened with some much-appreciated Haydn, the C major quartet (op. 74, no. 1). The first movement was perhaps too jaunty, as a passage of rapid figuration in the first violin around the closing section caused the sense of propulsion to flag just a bit. The development's opening motifs sounded smooth and slinky. After a sentimental second movement, the quartet finally came to life with a vigorous and rustic performance of the menuetto, contrasted by a more refined trio. Any doubts about a slightly rocky start were put to rest by the brisk and rock-solid fourth movement, with all of its many notes crisply defined. It was fine Haydn, with an ear for dance and folk inflections.

The best work of the evening was Leoš Janáček's second string quartet, often known by the title Intimate Letters (1928), last reviewed from the Quatuor Diotima in 2006. An adoring portrait of Kamila Stösslová, the younger woman with whom the composer was infatuated, the work is a series of sketches and dialogues. With their carefully aligned sense of ensemble, the Takács navigated the endless metric shifts and tempo changes as one. This dramatic piece's reliance on the viola as a sort of principal dialogue voice put the quartet's newest member, violist Geraldine Walther, in the forefront. Although the opening sul ponticello passage was dicey, she played exceptionally. In particular, towards the end of the fourth movement, the sound of the whole group was so hushed that it made the jarring, agitated tremolo punctuations stand out even more. Throughout, the range of colors was vast, from a hoarse whisper to dreamy reverie and passionate song.

Other Reviews:

Kyle MacMillan, String quartet in usual fine form (Denver Post, September 21)

John Terauds, Veteran quartet still produces ageless music (Toronto Star, October 12)

Michael Huebner, Takacs four a model of musical intuition, meticulous blend (Birmingham News, October 14)

Anne Midgette, A Quartet Climbs Out on a Limb, With Heat and Heart (New York Times, October 16)
Concluding with the Brahms op. 51, no. 1, seemed almost like a step backwards. This rendition was happily not as driven as the recording by the Emerson Quartet, although there was a pleasing undercurrent of unrest and anxiety through much of the music. It was a much more Romantic and Brahmsian gesture, with a good part of the turmoil held under the surface. Here the second-movement Romanze stood out, as did the tense but hushed third movement, while the fourth pushed a little too much toward stridency. To balance a rather silly Question and Answer session before the second half, we heard one encore, a vibrant and understated performance of Shostakovich's Polka, from The Golden Age.

This excellent concert will be broadcast on the radio program Center Stage from Wolf Trap, at some point in the future. The Takács Quartet repeated this program at Carnegie Hall the following night, after having performed it in Toronto on October 11 and Waco, Tex., on October 9. After another performance of this concert in Birmingham, Ala., the quartet will return to Carnegie Hall, to present its innovative Everyman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman reading scenes from the Philip Roth novel (October 23, 7:30 pm).

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