Takács at Carnegie Hall: Taking On a Master and His Many Complexities

The New York Times
By Zachary Woolfe
January 21, 2014

The Takács Quartet played Bartok, long one of its specialties, in two superb concerts over the weekend at Zankel Hall. Not only was the music making excellent, but I was also reminded throughout the performances of the clean, resonant acoustics of this subterranean space, which is celebrating its 10th season.

On Sunday afternoon, both an impassioned cello line and its glassy accompaniment sounded lucid and balanced in the icy expanse of the Fourth Quartet’s central slow movement, just one of many moments in which Zankel ideally amplified the Takács ensemble’s clear, lithe sound. But acoustics are nothing without gifted musicians to fill them, and this group played with febrile attack and firm confidence, even in swerves like the end of the Sixth Quartet’s opening movement, when vivacious bustle turns abruptly to a delicate conclusion.

While these six quartets are a healthy serving of complex, changeable music, here they felt like thickets of frisée, dense yet light. A danger of this music, which Bartok crammed full of slides, whispers, plucks and strumming, is that it can come across as exaggerated, a grab bag of mere effects.

But take, for example, the ensemble’s performance of the Third Quartet on Saturday evening. (The first concert featured the odd-numbered quartets, the second the evens.) There are slithering glissandos galore, but here they felt like earthy microcosms of the work’s sly transitions rather than gratuitous interpolations. Set atop low, ominously percussive accompaniment, the sliding evoked Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The group’s sound had enviable range, subverting expected sounds: Its pizzicato plucks in the Third were often as soft and gentle as its bowing, while its bowing took on the curt aggression of pizzicato.

On Saturday, the plush chords underlying the violin’s dissonant phrases in the Adagio of the Fifth Quartet were aching exhalations. The finale — brushy, bristling, improvisatory — felt like a rehearsal for a carnival, with the players sounding lively yet fundamentally clearheaded, the right mix in music whose rhythmic playfulness should never be mistaken for glibness. But the players seemed even more uncoiled and passionate on Sunday, particularly in a kaleidoscopic account of the Fourth, with its spidery, muted third movement and all-plucked Allegretto.

In the second movement of the Sixth Quartet, the second violin (here, Karoly Schranz) and viola (Geraldine Walther) quiver under a soaring cello melody (Andras Fejer) that the first violin (Edward Dusinberre) almost inaudibly doubles before subtly taking it on. It’s Bartok’s brilliance, but the Takács players executed it with a perfect mixture of fever and chill.

Even though these concerts were memorable, I agreed with the critic William Robin, an occasional contributor to The New York Times, when he questioned “the classical fixation on cycles” in a recent essay on The New Yorker’s website. Complete cycles — whether of Beethoven piano sonatas, Mahler symphonies or Shostakovich string quartets — have long been the easily marketable lifeblood of programmers and record executives, but they’re not always the most illuminating option for audiences.

The Takács Quartet has hardly shied away from doing the Bartok set; the group most recently brought the six quartets to New York just five years ago (paired, perhaps instructively, with Beethoven’s six early Opus 18 quartets). This time, while the leapfrogging evens-odds division might have been intended to give ticketholders for either performance the widest possible swath of Bartok’s career, you didn’t get the precise chronological progression, the sense of evolution as it actually happened — for instance, how the furious compression of the Third Quartet gave way, a year later, to the more formally expansive Fourth.

The pros and cons of any cycle are clear: You gain immersion and lose context. This weekend at Zankel, it seemed like a reasonable trade-off.

© 2017 Takács Quartet