Takacs String Quartet
A select but highly gratified audience welcomed the renowned Takacs String Quartet — Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz, violins; Geraldine Walther, viola; and Andras Fejer, cello — to Stanford’s Bing Hall, Friday, February 23 as part of the Stanford Live series of concerts. For music of Schubert and Beethoven the Takacs performed independently; but for the imposing, Romantic Op. 1 of Erno von Dohnanyi, his Piano Quintet in C Minor, the ensemble enjoyed the inestimable talents of Marc-Andre Hamelin, who provided an exemplary complement in a work that well embraces a musical tradition established by Schumann and Brahms.
The Takacs opened with Schubert’s 1820 fragment, his Quartettsatz in C Minor, D. 703, in one movement, Allegro assai, which Schubert failed to complete as an entire string quartet. This shimmering, melancholic work conforms to sonata-form structure, but it no less indicates Schubert’s mature harmonic syntax, emanating a tension and malaise typical of the Romantic Agony of the period. If Dusinberre’s wiry, lean sound pierced our souls, Ms. Walther’s throaty viola seemed to waver in and out of phase, with wide vibrato and roaming rubato. But often, the real contender in passionate ardor, Karoly Schranz’s second violin, commanded our attention, a phenomenon typical of this most intimate, intense evening of music-making.
Virtuoso pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin joined this seamless ensemble for the 1895 Piano Quintet of the eighteen-year-old Erno Dohnanyi. A piece of exceptional breadth and vitality, the Quintet begs to follow Brahms in its symphonic aspirations. To this end, Dohnanyi often has the strings play in unison groups, while the keyboard can range in and out of the evolving textures. Hamelin proved a master of controlled dynamics, subdued to allow the strings to sing, and potently sonorous and aggressive when required. Rife with large gestures, the work enjoys the audacities of youth, even inviting favorable comparisons with motifs in Liszt. Layered attacks and moments of counterpoint often yielded to flights of rhapsodic fancy, all within a carefully contoured and effective first movement.
The ensuing Scherzo: Allegro vivace certainly took its cue from Mendelssohn, but the affect proved less “fairy-tale” than syncopated and Slavic in character, with a hazy, lulling Trio section that might have been lifted directly from the Schumann Piano Quintet. The martial sweep of the movement held us in thrall, even as it evinced a grace that we might attribute to Franz Schubert. Schumann once more might have informed the lovely Adagio: Quasi Andante, in which cellist Andras Fejer warranted the price of admission. The entire melodic progression beguiled us, an autumnal arioso whose fiery blend of intimacy and urgency provided a revelation to those new to this precocious opus. The Finale: Allegro animato reverted to Hungarian type, insofar as its 5/4 meter and folksy color was concerned. As inventive as it proved colorful, this expressive rondo took many of its cues from the cello, including the (somewhat obligatory) fugue section. The Magyar syntax, bouncy verve, and clever use of imitation effects had us all whistling or lip-synching the main tune, moved through the strings and piano to a grandiose peroration that ended, curiously, on a plagal cadence, as if the composer had considered religious connotations in an already impressive feat of musical imagination
If religion were a musical issue this evening, then Beethoven’s might String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 (1826) fills the bill perfectly. This expansive, seven-movement construct demands a singular intensity and focus, given its richly chromatic, intensely personal experience. Imagine that this monumental exercise in counterpoint, variation form, and often contrary emotions meant required, nightly reading for Bela Bartok! The opening fugue on four notes – G-sharp, C (B-sharp), C-sharp, A – embraces every permutation of the sequence and simply evolves as one, continuous movement that jolts us with two violent scherzos and a massive theme and variations, then onto a connecting (11-bar) recitative, a poignant, even shattering, adagio, and finally a tumultuous, gripping finale. What defines success in this other-worldly emanation from Beethoven’s late imagination lies in the Takacs’ ability to sustain the grueling tension that alternately pulsates and floats throughout this equally punishing and rewarding music. We walk away humbled and grateful at once, having been demonized and purified by the most transcendental of string quartets.