Takács Quartet play Haydn, Ritchie, Webern, and Dvorak.

Review by Howard Davis

With a repertoire that spans three centuries of classical masterpieces and contemporary compositions, the Takács Quartet has an international reputation for its delicate artistry and technical virtuosity.

Now in its forty-third season, it was formed in 1975 at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest by Gabor Takács-Nagy (violin), Károly Schranz (violin), Gabor Ormai (viola), and András Fejér (cello), when all four were still students. Two years later, it won both First Prize and the Critics’ Prize at the International String Quartet Competition in Evian, France. Having won the Gold Medal at the Portsmouth and Bordeaux Competitions and First Prize at the Budapest International String Quartet Competition in 1978, the Quartet made its professional debut at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1979, and completed its North American debut tour in 1982. Their sound is fine and rich and improving with age.

Violinist Edward Dusinberre joined the Quartet in 1993 and violist Roger Tapping in 1995, while violist Geraldine Walther replaced Mr. Tapping in 2005. In 2001 the Takács Quartet was awarded the Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross of the Republic of Hungary, and in March 2011 each member was awarded the Order of Merit Commander’s Cross by the President of the Republic of Hungary. The ensemble won the 2011 Award for Chamber Music and Song presented by the Royal Philharmonic Society in London and a year later Wigmore Hall appointed the Takács Quartet as its first ever Associate Artists. In 2014 it became the first string quartet to win the Wigmore Hall Medal, which recognizes major international artists and significant figures in the classical music world who have a strong association with the Hall.

The Takács Quartet is especially known for its innovative programming, performing Philip Roth’s Everyman program at Carnegie Hall with Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2007, with Meryl Streep at Princeton in 2014, and again with her at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto the following year. They have toured with poet Robert Pinsky, collaborated regularly with Hungarian Folk group Muzsikas, and in 2010 worked with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and David Lawrence Morse on a drama project that explored the composition of Beethoven’s last quartets.

Last season, the Takacs presented the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets in concert at Wigmore Hall, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and UC Berkeley. Complementing these performances, Dusinberre’s book, Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet, takes the reader inside the life of a string quartet, melding music history and memoir as it explores the circumstances surrounding the composition of Beethoven’s sixteen string quartets. He begins chapter five by describing how cellist András Fejér had to wait until the end of a tour before having a stent put inside his heart: “‘Don’t worry,’ András told us backstage before a Sunday afternoon concert in June 2002 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. ‘I’m taking blood thinners and there’s a nitroglycerin pill in my tuxedo pocket: in the worst case just put it under my tongue’.” The quartet are so reliant on each other that they have now taken out individual life insurance policies. According to Dusinberre: “A football manager can replace an injured player with a substitute eager to come off the bench, but when a small music ensemble goes a man down it faces a trickier situation. The foundation of a string quartet is formed over a long period of time from the musical and personal bonds that evolve between four individuals.”

For their CDs on the Decca/London label, the Quartet has won three Gramophone Awards, one Grammy, three Japanese Record Academy Awards, Disc of the Year at the inaugural BBC Music Magazine Awards, and Ensemble Album of the Year at the Classical Brits. It now records for Hyperion and their releases for that label include string quartets by Haydn, Schubert, Janáček, Smetana, Debussy, and Britten, as well as piano quintets by Franck and Shostakovich (with Marc-André Hamelin), and viola quintets by Brahms (with Lawrence Power). Its latest recordings, Dvorák’s Viola Quintet, Op. 97 (also with Lawrence Power) and String Quartet, Op. 105, will be released in September 2017, and future releases will include the Dohnanyi Piano Quintets with Hamelin, as well as piano quintets by Elgar and Amy Beach with Garrick Ohlsson.

Currently based in the US, the members of the Quartet have been Christoffersen Faculty Fellows at the University of Colorado Boulder for the past three decades and play on instruments generously loaned to them by a family Foundation. They are avid supporters of young musicians and were instrumental in building a student mentorship programme with the University, where they helped develop a string program with special emphasis on chamber music. They are also a Visiting Quartet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

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Continuing their magnificent 2017 season, Chamber Music New Zealand presented the Quartet at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre where they performed a program that was exemplary in the balanced way each piece complemented the others.

Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) wrote the six String Quartets published as Op. 76 from 1796-98, while also working on his oratorio The Creation. When composing, Haydn believed that beauty and pleasure should be primary, whether expressed in a soaring cantilena or a bucolic ländler. Dedicated to Count Joseph Georg von Erdody, the mature and lyrical String Quartet in D Major for two violins, viola and cello is an entirely original work for a composer in his sixties, with a wholly unique opening movement and a witty Finale. It is perhaps the deepest and most personal of all Haydn’s slow movements for string quartet. The opening Allegretto begins with what sounds like a beguiling main theme for a set of variations followed by a second theme in the minor key. But after an abrupt modulation to the distant key of B flat major, a new theme begins at twice the original speed, followed by an Allegro coda. Haydn departs from the norms of sonata form by writing in ABA form, the first section in D major, the second in D Minor, and the third retiring to D Major. The Largo cantabile e mesto reveals Haydn exploring uncharted territory in the distant and notoriously difficult key of F sharp Major, the same key as the heartfelt slow movement of the slightly earlier Piano Trio in F Sharp Minor. As the expression marking indicates, the Largo‘s theme is tinged with sadness, and somewhat antithetical to the notion of lyrical ease associated with his cantabile instruction. The following Menuetto takes up the Largo‘s theme as its opening, but its mood here is much more cheerful. Haydn continues to assuage the sense of unease provoked by the slightly sinister D Minor grumbling of the Trio with the crazed brilliance of the 291-bar Presto Finale. It remains a humorously diverting composition, with more jokes in it than any other Haydn finale, from its opening theme that sounds like a closing cadence to its exposition repeat that is always expected, but never actually occurs.

Born 1960, Anthony Ritchie has become one of New Zealand’s most prolific composers, having written three symphonies, two operas, and seven concertos, in addition to numerous solo vocal and choral works, chamber pieces, and music for theatre and dance. The son of John Ritchie, a professor of composition and orchestration, Ritchie completed his PhD on Béla Bartók in 1987 after studying at the Bartók Archives in Budapest. He also studied composition with Attila Bozay at the Liszt Academy and completed his Mus.B (Hons) at the University of Canterbury. He has held the posts of Composer-in-Schools in Christchurch, Mozart Fellow at the University of Otago, and Composer-in-Residence at the Dunedin Sinfonia. He has worked as a freelance composer since 1994, writing for a wide variety of performers including the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Auckland Philharmonia, Michael Houston, and Wilma Smith.

Whakatipua evokes the landscapes around Queenstown in a pellucid series of limpid impressions that parallels Webern’s gloriously Romantic Langsame Satz, which was similarly inspired by Austria’s alpine environment. In both pieces we hear what Julian Johnson termed “the transformation from nature towards a fulfilled spirituality.” The structure follows a tripartite arrangement with the serene opening and closing sections suggesting an impression of morning and evening and neatly framing the central, more energetic episode in which the violins play in dialogue over passages of viola and cello obligato. Ritchie’s open, radiant textures conjure the unique quality of South Island light, while his incorporation of folk idioms and restrained pizzicato stylings suggests the European settlement during the 1860s gold rush that grew up around Lake Whakatipu’s fathomless depths.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) graduated in 1902 from Vienna University, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Hermann Graedener, Karl Navratil, and musicology with Guido Adler. In 1904 he begun studying with Arnold Schoenberg and, although he had been composing since he was a teenager, his studies with Schoenberg ushered in a new epoch in his development. He began producing work of much greater structural rigour and cohesion, utilizing meticulous craft and a profound sense of emotional expression. His love of Brahms and his devotion to Mahler also proved formative influences. In his diary for February 1905, Webern quoted a conversation with Mahler, who told him “Nature is for us the model in this realm. Just as in nature the entire universe has developed from the primeval cell, from plants, animals, and men beyond to God, the Supreme Being, so also in music should a larger structure develop from a single motive in which is contained the germ of everything that is yet to be.”

Webern’s Langsame Satz (literally “Slow Movement”) was written in 1905, but not publicly performed until 1962 in Seattle. It originated during a hiking trip in Lower Austria that Webern took with his cousin, Wilhelmine Mörtl, who later became his wife. As he confessed in his diary, it was explicitly intended as love music and exemplifies the organic evolution of music espoused by Mahler. Its opening material, played by the first violin, recurs throughout the piece played by other instruments, fragmented and manipulated. Webern’s skill at counterpoint keeps all four parts in constant forward motion, the melodies entwined, gathering strength, and regenerating around each other. Webern structured the Satz in ABA form, with the first section beginning in C Minor, propelled by his demand for an ever-increasing Ausdfruck (‘expression’). The second section (Sehr ruhig – ‘very still’) starts in C Major and rapidly builds to a climax (Sehr briet und ausdrucksvoll – ‘very broad and expressive’), before a tender interlude lead to the return of the opening material. The transcendent revocations of the final phrases also demonstrate Webern’s debt to Mahler, but his own voice asserts itself in all its translucent warmth and clarity.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) completed his final Quartet in A Flat Major in 1895, after returning to Bohemia from a visit to the US. Dvořák began his sketches while still in New York, but preparations for his return voyage interrupted progress. Upon his arrival in Prague, however, he finished the work in just three weeks (writing mostly new music, rather than developing earlier material) and his joy at being home is apparent in the Quartet’s rich lyricism. It marks an important point in Dvořák’s development as a composer because he would devote himself almost exclusively to writing explicit program music (symphonic poems and operas) afterwards. It premiered in October 1896 and soon became a staple in the repertoire of the Bohemian Quartet. Like both Whakatipua and Langsame Satz, it celebrates a sense of returning home by expressing a personal affinity with familiar landscapes.

The opening Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro appassionato begins with a cello solo, before the other instruments appear in the shadowy recesses of A flat Minor. Dvořák works his motives and themes hard, with carefully manipulated versions of music from the exposition returning throughout the Allegro appassionato. Although an extravagantly Romantic mood pervades the whole piece, the Scherzo: Molto vivace, which begins in F Minor, best expresses its Slavic spirit, as Dvořák contrasts motoric rhythms with exquisite dialogues in which the violins are treated like singers. Similarly, the principal theme that opens the third movement, Lento e molto cantabile, derives from a choral song, and is reminiscent of the melody Dvořák used to begin the Quartet. The Allegro non tanto finale is the longest movement of the four, stating a main theme that Dvořák reprised a year later in his symphonic poem A Hero’s Song. This final movement begins with some anguished phrases from the cello before evolving quickly into a joyful and vivacious dance, the ambitious complexity of which marks a structural parallel with some of Schubert’s later quartets.

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