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14.11.12

Takács and Hamelin

available at Amazon
R. Schumann, String Quartet (op. 41/3) / Piano Quintet, Takács Quartet, M.-A. Hamelin
(2009)

available at Amazon
Schubert, String Quartets 13/14, Takács Quartet
(2006)
Take the Takács Quartet, one of our favorite string quartets, and Marc-André Hamelin, one of our favorite pianists, and put them together on one free concert at the Library of Congress, and you have our full attention. The concert by that combination on Tuesday night was an easy choice for our top picks of this month, and nothing could have kept us from hearing it. Except maybe the long security lines at the entrance to the Jefferson Building, which nearly did.

The program played to all of this venerable quartet's strengths, beginning with the simmering, moody themes of Schubert's A minor quartet (D. 804), named for Schubert's incidental music for the play Rosamunde, a theme from which appears in the quartet's second movement. In the first three movements, this performance rose little above a hush, with the pure, sweet tone of first violinist Edward Dusinberre leading the blossoming of minor into major and back. The second movement had the feel of a wordless melody hummed to oneself while on a stroll, a glowing, rosy set of variations, but the third movement stood out for its folk-inflected introduction to a delicate dance, forlorn and lonely even in its trio set in major. The fourth movement, the only moment of sunny exuberance, had all of its staccato chords in unity, with little Haydnesque jokes at the theme's return.

Britten's three string quartets, masterful 20th-century examples of the genre that make one wish he had composed more of them, are not yet in the Takács's discography. Dusinberre gave an insightful introduction to the first quartet (D major, op. 25). Composed in 1940, when Britten was living in the United States, the work was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, for whom the Library's acoustically gorgeous auditorium is named. Its opening is one of the stranger moments in the repertoire, with the three higher instruments hanging in the clouds on long, high notes over distracted pizzicati in the cello. The first movement's animated fast section rumbled away, turning heavenward again to dissolve into those numinous, floating structures of the opening. The second movement, a heavy-footed dance, was interrupted by garrulous growls from the four instruments in grouchy conversation. The third movement, described by Dusinberre as one of Britten's evocations of the seascape of his home country in East Anglia, was marked by the group's impeccable intonation and balance, caressing the dissonances that dissolve into consonance. The fourth movement was an athletic romp, with impish upward flourishes that powered the piece to an ecstatic ending. When the group records the Britten quartets, it should be memorable.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Classical music review: The Takacs Quartet (Washington Post, November 15)
The evening reached its apogee with Shostakovich's piano quintet (op. 57), one of the most eloquent pieces written for that combination of instruments. It dates from the same year as Britten's first quartet, 1940, and rumbles with many of the same tensions but is more tragic in character where Britten was elegiac. Hamelin brought to the keyboard part both reticence, with the piano often trying to fit into the texture in minimal ways (trying to sneak in like a string instrument in the mournful fugue of the second movement), and overwhelming power, biting in tone as the engine that drives the cynical dance of the scherzo. Shostakovich wrote the piano part for himself (he claimed in a letter that it was easy), to play with the Beethoven Quartet, who requested the piece, and it met with delirious critical acclaim in the Soviet Union. The fourth-movement lament was led by the soulful first violin -- the final part of Dusinberre's first-rate performance -- joined in perfect tandem by Geraldine Walther's viola. Seeming to put on a false happy face, the music takes an odd turn in the neoclassical intermezzo, aping a zippy Baroque serenade at times, followed by a quasi-Mozartean sonata-form conclusion. Although the piece won Shostakovich a Stalin Prize, it was not without its detractors, as documented by biographer Laurel Fay. A functionary named Moisey Grinberg penned a critique that labeled the work "a composition of profoundly Western orientation" and "music that does not connect with the life of the people." Fortunately for Shostakovich, Grinberg's was a minority opinion. Sofia Moshevich relates Shostakovich's remarks after the premiere, as recalled by writer Marietta Shagynian: "I have been wandering the streets of Moscow, my soul filled with bliss."

The next chamber music concert at the Library of Congress will feature the Apollon Musagète Quartet this Friday (November 16, 8 pm), playing music by Haydn, Szymanowski, Suk, and Mendelssohn.

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