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Great string quartets generate a sound particular to them, but they also evolve as personnel change. The Takács Quartet, founded by four fellow students at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy in 1975, is one of the more venerable ensembles on the recital circuit and an annual visitor to Philadelphia’s Chamber Music Society (PCMS).
In 1993, first violinist Edward Dusinberre, one of the finest chamber musicians anywhere, replaced Gábor Takács-Nagy, who gave the group its name. Violist Geraldine Walther came aboard in 2005. This year’s recital will be the last for second violinist Károly Schranz, who retires at the end of this season. That will leave only cellist András Fejér of the original group. Fejér remains in top form, but one of the finest quartets ever produced by Hungary may, depending on new hires, have only a historical connection to it in the future.
Will that matter? Yes and no. Major ensembles recruit from an international pool when replacing players and don’t necessarily remain tied to their place of origin; the Takács has been in residence at the University of Colorado since 1983. Still, it is closely associated with the Hungarian repertoire, beginning with unexcelled interpretations of Bartók's quartets but extending to such major modernists as Ligeti and Kurtág. It also brought an unfamiliar work by a prominent Bartók contemporary, Ernő Dohnányi, the String Quartet No. 1 in D-Flat, to its recent performance.
A real rarity
The Dohnányi rarity was flanked by two cornerstones of the repertory, Mozart’s Quartet No. 14 in G (K. 387) and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131. Mozart’s first 13 quartets, all bunched between K. 156 and K. 173, are products of his teen years and mark his coming of age as a composer of chamber music.
K. 387, composed shortly after his arrival in Vienna a decade later, is in a different league, the first of his truly mature works in the quartet medium, and the first of a set of six dedicated to his belated mentor, Franz Joseph Haydn. It shows Mozart having thoroughly assimilated what Haydn had accomplished to that point. The elder composer acknowledged that he had not only met his equal but his superior; he said Mozart was the greatest composer he’d known.
The relaxed and lyrical character of K. 387's opening movement belies its rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic freedom. The large-scale minuet that follows it — one of only two among Mozart’s 27 string quartets to be placed as a second movement — similarly extends the form, with a suddenly darker, minor-key middle section.
The Andante cantabile, the work's heart, reaches emotional depths only suggested previously in Mozart’s instrumental works. Its finale, a tumultuous Molto allegro, revels in contrapuntal display. The Takács had the measure of the work in all its moods, playing with its customary elegance and élan.
Dohnányi’s three-movement First Quartet dates from 1906 but remains in the Romantic tradition; there is little in it Brahms could not have accommodated. However, we’ve learned one good lesson from the past half-century of musical eclecticism: evaluate works on their own merit rather than in relation to a suppositional avant-garde.
There is strong feeling and powerful craft throughout the piece. A sense of urgency builds through a meditative beginning to the turbulent finale, with many changes of tempi and mood before a quiet close.
Cellist Fejér, who clearly has this music in his blood, took the emotional lead, but all players displayed deep commitment. It must be regarded as a cornerstone of the Hungarian repertory.
Beethoven’s Op. 131 is for many is the summit of his art. Its unprecedented seven-movement structure unfolds in such a variety of moods as to seem almost a fantasia, yet the tonal design and integration of its parts are still intricate enough to reward analysis. At the same time, the overall result is pure and direct.
Beethoven ended his previous composition, the Op. 130 Quartet, with a stupendous fugue of such scope that it overbalanced the work. He returns to the fugue for the opening movement of Op. 131, but this time in spareness and ineffable grief. It is as if, having climbed the great mountain of himself, he found himself somehow on another peak. The Takács was superb; even if the sold-out house was thinned by inclement weather, those who made the trip were profoundly rewarded.
What, When, Where
The Takács Quartet. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quartet in G Major, K. 387. Ernö Dohnányi, Quartet in D-Flat Major, Op. 15. Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. March 20, 2018, at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.
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