The Takács Quartet Benefitted from Red-Blooded Humanity

Chicago Tribune
By Alan G. Artner
October 17, 2014

The Takács Quartet and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin opened the chamber music season at Orchestra Hall Thursday night with an irresistible display of how to perform Belgian and French masterworks.

The common approach long has been to emphasize lightness, balance and clarity at the expense of everything else. But that didn't happen Thursday.

Instead, the players took Cesar Franck and Claude Debussy at their word, fervently following directives for passion, sweetness and drama as if "national characteristics" were less important than human red-bloodedness. And that combined with exceptional technical accomplishment made all the difference.

In the case of Franck it swept away the myth of superhuman piety. Already in the 1950s, when the Hollywood String Quartet participated in a now-famous recording of Franck's Quintet in F Minor, the major work on Thursday's program, the anonymous annotator sought to deflate the traditional view that the composer "was so completely and intensely spiritual, so wrapped up in the Mystery, that his life was one long and unrelieved posture of genuflection."

Certainly the Quintet has many moments of rarified inwardness to compare with those in his more familiar Violin Sonata. But the larger piece also is unsettling in its display of earthly emotions, elicited by such commands as "with fire," "very sweetly" and "with much tender feeling." The power of such emotions, in fact, so disturbed Franz Liszt – no stranger to passion – that he felt the Quintet may have gone beyond the limits of socially acceptable chamber music.

On Thursday it was, of course, impossible for us to share the unease felt by the first audience, in 1880. But the seductive tone Hamelin and first violinist Edward Dusinberre brought to their soft solos was almost as disquieting as the tension of their agitated outbursts. And the performance as a whole was a thrilling exception to the over prepared and under characterized readings that dominate concert halls today.

The Takács' Debussy String Quartet was, likewise, another reclamation project, this time rescuing the score from asperities of modernist clarity. The account abounded in tender tone and gradations of what we might call Symbolist shading, winningly appropriate to what is known of the sound world of the early 1890s.

The program opened with a warm, unforced, bouncy performance of Joseph Haydn's Quartet in B-flat Major (Op. 64, No. 3), which observed all repeats but the last. The concert ended without encores.

Link to Chicago Tribune online review ›

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