Revelatory playing from Takács Quartet in music spanning a mere thirty years

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz, Geraldine Walther, András Fejér)

Janáček’s String Quartet No 1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’; Bartók’s No 2; Quartet in G minor (Debussy)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 7 July, 7.30pm

Two original members of the Takács Quartet remain – second violin and cello; the present leader replaced Gabor Takács-Nagy, the founding leader, in 1995; and the violist Roger Tapping was replaced by Geraldine Walther in 2005.

Their reputation among the most celebrated quartets attracted a big though not overflowing audience to the Town Hall. All three works in this admirable programme, written over a span of only thirty years, must be seen as core repertoire now.

The concert opened with the Janáček, with an introduction spoken by leader Dusinberre who proved as effective a communicator with his voice as with his bow. It was a model of such things. Without a microphone he used his voice with clarity and such excellent projection that I’m sure he was audible in the back stalls; and he spoke with a certain droll wit about the serious matter of Tolstoi’s famous story, and the role of the Beethoven violin sonata, and of Janáček’s treatment of it, along with a few musical examples and Dusinberre’s own gloss on aspects of it.

Many will recall the most effective theatre piece from Bats Theatre in November 2007, entitled The Kreutzer, built on the Tolstoi story, inspired by NZSO violist Peter Barber and stage directed by Sara Brodie. It used parts of the Janáček quartet played by the Nevine Quartet and parts of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata played by pianist Catherine McKay and violinist Donald Armstrong.

This performance was alive with vivid colours and sharply contrasted emotions,  the warm relationship between wife and musical partner – honeyed tones from the strings, blunted by the husband’s enraged reaction to the couple’s conspicuous relationship – displayed by frenzied bowings from the second violin.

Whether made more graphic by having the essentials of the story sketched to us or, for others, no doubt, impatient with performers talking about music (I am not one), the episodes could never have been more full of musical meaning, more richly painted in often less than orthodox technical devices. And the whole played in an accord that is achieved only as a result of living and breathing the music they play as if for all their lives; accord does not imply ’sounding as one’ but that four distinct musical personalities are working in perfect collaboration.

In his second string quartet Bartók (written five years before the Janáček) follows his own path in terms of the character of each movement and use of tonalities; there is no need to dwell on the originality of breaking away from traditions; other composers too were departing, in their own ways, from traditional musical patterns and so risking audiences’ alienation.

In this quartet, the composer can readily be seen as taking serious liberties with audience tolerance, with its absence of melody and in the first and third movements a mood of dispiriting bleakness, and the absence of any assistance through some kind of narrative such as Janáček offers.

In spite of the music’s darkness and the challenge to the audience which, in such music, might be seeking some kind of metaphysical meaning, these players held us in awe and rapt attention; if there was an underlying message about the horrors of the First World War which was ending as Bartók wrote, it was not explicit, though it would have been easy, then and now, to hear that as an underlying awareness. The intensity and passion of the performance could have lent itself to a great many other horrendous events in the century since it was written. There was relief however in middle movement, titled Allegro molto capriccioso, folk-inflected from Bartók’s folk music collecting in the Balkans and eastern Algeria, which the quartet captured dazzlingly in all its semi-barbaric energy.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Debussy’s quartet, which ardent chamber music lovers would have travelled to Paekakariki to hear only two weeks ago from the fine Aroha Quartet.  Twenty years older than the Bartók, it certainly inhabits a very different world, but one that lent itself to playing that was as scrupulous and entrancingly coloured in ways that suggested the most detailed observation of the natural world (though Debussy refrained from offering overt hints by conjuring visual images, to distract listeners from the actual music).  And even though much of the music called for a high degree of homogeneity in articulation and dynamics, that very quality threw into relief the parts where individual instruments made themselves heard dramatically.

The hints of dappled skies generated through dynamic fluctuations and ever-varying tone colourings, the sharing of motifs between instruments, all created a sound world the equivalent of impressionism in painting. Placed at the end of the concert, after later quartets that were very radical at their time, the impact of this music, in an idiom that had aspects that were also new in its day, and certainly pointed to the ways music would change over the next few decades, was to draw attention to characteristics that were essentially of the Romantic 19th century, conventionally beautiful, classics, able to bear repeated hearings.

And in response to long and rapturous applause, the quartet played the quite long Notturno from Borodin’s second string quartet which released us transported, into the cold night.

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