The Takács Quartet are chamber music royalty, so it hardly merits mentioning that their performance of Mozart’s penultimate quartet was as richly blended and beautifully played as you could hope to hear. Mozart composed his “Prussian” quartets for King Frederick William II, a keen amateur cellist, and Mozart responded by increasing the prominence of the cello line in various discrete ways. However, the unanimity of purpose displayed by expert teams like the Takács meant that there was never any danger of clumsiness or of one line dominating. Indeed, several times during the Mozart it felt as though the cello and the first violin were having a conversation that was being supported by the other instruments, and I loved the to-and-fro between them that provided some active drama.

Takács Quartet © Amanda Tipton
Takács Quartet
© Amanda Tipton

This is the second of the Takács’ two EIF concerts. Both featured quartets by Mozart and Dvořák, and a Piano Quintet by Ernő Dohnányi, so the progress of each programme was eastwards. As we arrived at Dvořák, they embraced that taste of eastern Europe by choosing one of his most Czech-influenced quartets (in German it is often referred to as the “Slawisches-Quartett) which carried great rhythmic drive in the first movement and a glittering skočna dance for the finale. It was the slow music that was more interesting, though, be it the blissful peace of the third movement or, most remarkably, the intense outpouring of the second, so deeply lyrical that at times it resembled an operatic lament.

Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet no. 2 in E flat minor was a remarkable and very striking way to end their concert. Written twenty years after his significantly sunnier first, some scholars think it mirrors the composer’s emotional crisis and the messy affair that brought him out of it. Joined by the masterful Marc-André Hamelin on the keyboard, the performance embraced the work’s drama to the full, from the sinister E flat minor opening to the major key release of the finale. It’s a new work to me, but I found the emotional journey it led us through really striking. There are all sorts of masterful touches, too. The second movement, for example, is a set of variations that begins in tortured introspection before moving towards some sort of hope in the major key, as if walking us through the composer’s emotional state one step at a time.

The finale is particularly striking, beginning with a tortured fugato, here played with a dusky sense of threat, and the piano’s entry is saved for a later solo passage which Hamelin played as though he was intoning funeral rites. From that point there was a lurch into the major which was beautifully played and empathetically coloured, but – intentionally, of course – not entirely convincing. It takes musicians of real genius to be able to evoke that ambiguity so well, and the Queen’s Hall audience knew it had heard something pretty special.

*****