Beethoven’s last quartet – Op.135 in F major, considered by many to be the final work that the master completed before his death in 1827 – maps a complete portrait of a complex musical mind. There is so much going on in this work, a universe of ideas and feelings condensed into less than 25 minutes. There are just four instruments, but there may as well be 400 for the range of tonal wizardry, the imaginative development of themes and fragments that cause jaws to drop, and fanciful flights that lead to abrupt resolutions.

Takács Quartet © Amanda Tipton
Takács Quartet
© Amanda Tipton

The Takács Quartet, formed in 1975 by the musical ancestors of the current ensemble, is ideally suited to perform this work, as it did in this midpoint of the Mostly Mozart Festival. I say ideally because the group has an inherent energy and quick responsiveness that mirrors the delightful, yet sometimes unsettling architecture of the four eclectic movements. A floor-plan of four distinct sections in a Beethoven late quartet is quite a novelty (the Opus 131 has seven movements, interconnected), framing a valedictory tribute to his early teachers in this medium, Haydn and Förster. The quartet members, individually, in pairs or joyfully together, bring a perfect balance of individual understanding and ensemble cohesion to this and the other performances in the concert. This is a group whose individual members are not afraid to play with their entire bodies, from tapping toes to grimaces, wrinkled brows, and bows raised high with a flourish.

The work has its dark, disturbing moments, as in the much-discussed “Must it be?” (G-E-A flat) question in the fourth movement, but overall, the feeling conveyed was light and playful, from the crazed joy of the second movement, the serene hymn-like quality of the third, to the resounding, one could even say triumphant, final sprints of the fourth movement, with a cello tune seeming to foretell the “New World” melodies of Dvořák. All outstanding musicians deserving high marks for their ensemble and individual playing, the quartet members are: Edward Dusinberre, violin; Harumi Rhodes, violin; Geraldine Walther, viola; and András Fejér, cello.

The program began with Mozart’s String Quartet in D major, K575, the “Prussian,” a graceful shapeshifter of a work, rich in melody with opportunities for each instrument to shine. The work is not without its mysteries, such as the whispered conclusion of the second movement, and something not quite right with the Trio in the Minuet (perhaps my ear craves a higher register at this point, or the tune simply may be too conventional.). The Takács shone throughout, however, and I noticed for the first time the resemblance of the theme around measures 40–45 in Mozart’s last movement to Purcell’s Rondeau from the Abdelazer suite (used by Britten in his Young People’s Guide). It’s always fun to catch one composer influenced by another, or at the least, to pinpoint a musical coincidence.

Pianist Jeremy Denk joined the quartet for a performance of Ernst von Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet in C minor from 1895. This was a truly amazing performance – technically flawless and filled with romantic spirit – of a remarkable, if not spectacularly original work by the teenage Hungarian composer. The work is full of feeling in the best late 19th-century European tradition, but supported by intelligent compositional skill and structure. Supposedly Dohnányi’s teacher ran into Johannes Brahms at a spa and showed him the work, to which Brahms is quoted as saying, “I couldn’t have written it better myself!” Quite a feather in the cap of young Ernst for his Op.1.

For this performance, the piano was located behind the quartet, seeming to reflect the sound evenly throughout the hall. Pianist and quartet explored the work seamlessly together without losing the expressive insights of individual musicians. The third movement, for example, featured some deeply heartfelt playing by violist Walther, and later through the eloquence of cellist Fejér.

I arrived early to hear the Takács in Haydn’s Quartet in C major (“The Bird”) from 1781, more than ten years before he would take on the challenge of teaching the young Beethoven. The pre-concert recital, as it is termed, offers an additional performance to ticket-holders at no extra charge.

I like these events because they have open seating and one may see and hear the performers from a different point of view. In this case, I was very much impressed by the animation of the musicians, whose physical presence and eager engagement with the music and each other brought excitement and delight to what some might consider an unremarkable work from the classical era. Immediately captivating the audience with a cheerful first movement in bright C major, the Takács offered delightful “bird songs” in the second movement, a shy little Minuet in the third, and a lively final movement with an impeccable pace and sensitive phrasing. There is more to Haydn than first meets the ear.

*****