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Takács Quartet @ Corcoran

Takács Quartet, photo by Lin Wang

The second installment of the Washington concert appearances by Ionarts favorite the Takács Quartet, following a beautiful concert at Wolf Trap last October, was at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Friday night. It was a closely matched program (the same one they played at Carnegie Hall the night before), intended really to be Part 2 to the Wolf Trap concert, but offered as a benefit concert on behalf of the Corcoran's Musical Evening Series.

The group opened with a Haydn quartet (op. 74, no. 2), following up on op. 74, no. 1, at Wolf Trap. Their Haydn this time was jolly, reflected in the sunny, sharp tone of Edward Dusinberre's first violin. The group set the tempo of the first movement (Vivace) one notch too fast, catching the viola a little unawares, at its solo moment transitioning to the second theme (an issue resolved in the repeat of the exposition). The second movement, a graceful theme with variations set at just the right pace, featured lovely, pensive solo playing from the two remaining Hungarian founding members of the quartet, cellist András Fejér and second violinist Károly Schranz. The third and fourth movements returned to the light-hearted mood, with a cheery menuetto and a finale in the spirit of a country reel.

Takács Quartet:
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Haydn (op. 76)

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Brahms, op. 51
In the modern slot (instead of Janáček's second quartet at Wolf Trap), it was Béla Bartók's fifth quartet. The 20th century was dominated by three great sets of string quartets -- six by Bartók (1909-1939), fifteen by Shostakovich (1938-1974), and five (so far) by Elliott Carter (1951-1995). Hopefully, the Takács will one day give a complete performance of Bartók's cycle of six string quartets here in Washington, as their interpretations of his quartets, live and in recording, remain the most illuminating. Yes, we have heard them play no. 2 and no. 3 in recent years at the Corcoran, but not enough to justify you calling us greedy for wanting more.

In no. 5 once again, it was the quartet's unity that impressed as it rocketed through the vast palette of colors -- folk songs hummed in the night, a perverse tango, barbaric yapping, machine-gun unisons, in the first movement alone. Forms crystallized beautifully, like the chiasmic return of the pure and sad folk recitative in the first violin that opens and closes the second movement. The lopsided Bulgarian dance of the third movement contrasted with the insect and frog calls growing to an angry buzz in the fourth. The fifth movement, opening starkly and driving furiously to its end, capped an extraordinary performance.

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, Takács Quartet (Washington Post, February 25)

Dean Bevan, Takács Quartet’s communication leads to sensitive performance (Lawrence (Kans.) Journal-World, February 19)
Washington is enjoying a surfeit of the Brahms quartets this season, driving Anne Midgette at the Post to distraction, with a complete cycle from the Emerson Quartet and now an almost-complete one from the Takács. After op. 51, no. 1, at Wolf Trap it was time for op. 51, no. 2, with similar results. The first movement opened at a restrained tempo but seemed overall flexible, the push and pull creating a sense of introspection, which continued into the ardent, sustained second movement. Having heard this performance side by side with the Emerson Quartet last month, I think that the Emerson owns the third movement, with a cool, gloomy minuetto, while the Takács' rendition was a little scattered, especially the trio, which was at the edge of control. However, the Takács gave a much more satisfyingly gutsy performance of the fourth movement, holding back the tempo slightly (it is marked Allegro non assai) and digging into the score with weight. "After that light program," as Edward Dusinberre put it, it was time for a little Shostakovich encore, the delightfully acidic Polka from The Golden Age, no less welcome because it had also been the encore at Wolf Trap in October.

The closest that the Takács Quartet's third program -- with Haydn's op. 74, no. 3, and the third Brahms quartet -- will get to Washington is the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society (April 28, 8 pm), which also includes the Franck Piano Quintet with Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Road trip, anyone? The next, equally anticipated concert at the Corcoran features the Jupiter Quartet (March 28, 8 pm).


jfl said...

"The 20th century was dominated by three great sets of string quartets -- six by Bartók (1909-1939), fifteen by Shostakovich (1938-1974), and five (so far) by Elliott Carter"

If Carter can be considered to be "dominating" anything, then I won't feel coy about throwing in Villa-Lobos, whose 15 String Quartets are a treasure trove like you wouldn't believe, if you have not discovered it for yourself. For lack of exposure they may not have dominated anything, but they should have.

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes. Incredibly, there are 17 underplayed quartets by Villa-Lobos (and apparently sketches he left for an 18th). There are others one could add to a list of worthy quartets in the 20th century, too. The three sets I picked strike me as encapsulating the stylistic trends of their respective eras.

Plus -- you know that it is the curse of musicologists to think in threes. It's some kind of rule. That being said, I would be interested in reading your case for the Villa-Lobos set. I admit that it did not leap to my mind as I wrote that paragraph.

jfl said...

I guess I'll have to make my case, then, that Villa-Lobos' and Bloch's String Quartets are absolutely on par with DSCH and certainly Carter. (Though, admittedly, Carter is a different ballgame, altogether, and should better be compared to Maxwell-Davies.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Bloch also very nice. Let us not forget Darius Milhaud, who managed to compose 18 string quartets, of which I have probably heard one or two, at most.

jfl said...

They haven't even been recorded, have they? Well - no... they have been recorded... but almost impossible to find. I wonder if they are truly good works.

Bloch 1-5 plus "Two Pieces", "Night", and "Paysages" are superb. And Villa-Lobos is lots more than just quantity. (Speaking of "just quantity" - Martinu's cycle is quite fine, too.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Quantity is one of the considerations that makes me hesitate to nominate the three Britten quartets. They are all excellent pieces, but as a cycle probably not substantial enough to represent a major accomplishment of the century-altering variety.

jfl said...

...but I thought you like things in "Threes" ?? :-)