The Takács Quartet has won the kind of acclaim that most chamber groups can only dream of, and their concert in Boston made their enviable reputation understandable.
By Susan Miron.
The highly esteemed Takács Quartet is a frequent guest of The Celebrity Series of Boston, and their fans packed Jordan Hall on Friday night. Formed in 1975 in Budapest by four students at the Franz Liszt Academy, the group still has two of its original members—its second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejer. Its excellent first violin, Edward Dusinberre, joined the quartet in 1993, and their famed violist, Geraldine Walther, joined in 2005 after serving as principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony for 29 years. The quartet has won the kind of acclaim that most chamber groups can only dream of, and their concert in Boston made their enviable reputation understandable.
Their concert began with Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 76, no. 5, which Haydn wrote at the age of 67, near the end of his long career. It opens exuberantly, with lots of virtuosic writing for the first violin, which, like everything that followed, was played with passion, impeccable intonation and a beautiful sound. Throughout the evening, Dusinberre played gorgeously.
Full of fun and surprises, the Haydn quartet is known for its expansive and sweet second movement, a Largo. Haydn referred to this movement as cantabile e mesto, songful and sad, and wrote it in the most unusual key of F-sharp minor. I am always surprised by how much depth, brilliance, and humor lies in Haydn’s music, which I somehow overlooked in my younger days. The Takács’ performance of its hilarious presto was hugely enjoyable: the last movement begins as if it’s about to wrap up, and the composer continues to play this joke while the music rushes headlong towards its genuine conclusion.
The Takács Quartet has made a specialty of Schubert’s chamber music, and their expertise showed in the poignant String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804, “Rosamunde.” Many will recognize in the opening theme of the second movement the beloved melody the composer used in his incidental music for the play Rosamunde. One of the few quartets performed in Schubert’s short lifetime, it reflects the composer’s awareness that his health was quickly waning and that he was, understandably, in a deep depression. It received a moving performance.
For many in the audience, the highlight of the evening was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57, a fasscinating piece that is rarely performed. The always brilliant pianist Marc-André Hamelin was the ideal chamber music player. He has recorded the Schumann Piano Quintet with the Takács Quartet, and they enjoy excellent chemistry. Known for his extreme virtuosity, Hamelin here had an often spare but dramatic written part that he played with gusto and élan. His sound was beautiful, compelling, and stirring. The Jordan Hall Steinway sounded great. Hamelin is a musician who has both an extraordinary musical understanding and a compelling way of making listeners concentrate on his sound. Here he was the perfect fifth player, and the quartet responded, playing with more visceral excitement than they had supplied in the first half.
In Shostakovich and Stalin, Solomon Volkov wrote that “the Piano Quintet breathes with the weary wisdom of a person who has just recovered from a severe illness. Here Shostakovich stepped back in time from Mahler to Bach. . . The Soviet intelligentsia, recently drowning in the horrors of the Terror, wanted to surface for a brief moment to look around and catch its breath. A contemporary recalled that Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet appeared like a ‘precious crystal of timeless truth.’”
Composed in 1940 between the outbreak of war in Europe and the Nazi invasion of Russia, the first performance offered, in the words of Rostislav Dubinsky, the first violinist of the Borodin Quartet, “the last ray of light before the future sank into a dark gloom.” Impressed with the composer’s First String Quartet (he wrote 15 in all), the Moscow-based Beethoven Quartet asked Shostakovich to write a quintet, featuring the composer himself at the piano. It turned out to be one of his most popular works, as well as the least likely to upset Stalin. The performance was a great success and went on to win the controversial Stalin Prize, which came with a huge 100,000 ruble cash prize.
Free of the composer’s usual grotesqueries and ironies, the quintet is instantly recognizable as prime Shostakovich (and, to these ears, some of his most enjoyable), accessible and musically compelling, accented by its massive prelude and fugues in the first two movements. The beautiful, slow fourth movement hints at a wrenching sadness, which is quickly dispelled in the Finale. Considered neo-classical, the quintet rarely has five instruments play simultaneously. The viola has many luscious solo moments, and Geraldine Walther showed why she enjoys such a tremendous reputation in the viola world. An ingeniously programmed concert, deftly played.