When something is in your DNA, it is part of you. There's no avoiding it. So it is with Beethoven and the Takács Quartet. From within its impressively wide-ranging repertoire and extensive performance schedule, the Takács keeps returning to Beethoven, always with fresh eyes, seemingly to demonstrate that, like the double-helix structure of DNA in Watson and Crick's historic discovery, Beethoven's string quartets are also elegant in their simplicity on the outside whilst containing all the genetic coding necessary to express complex emotional possibilities.

Takacs Quartet © Keith Saunders
Takacs Quartet
© Keith Saunders

The Takács was on top form as it continued its Beethoven cycle at Wigmore Hall, with two quartets from his early Op. 18 set and a masterpiece from his late period. The String Quartet in A major, Op. 18 No. 5 had the Takács floating melodic lines like undulating waves, with a lightness of touch and a natural phrasing that showed the ensemble breathing as one and giving each instrument an equal voice. There were nicely accented phrases in the middle movements, with a stately and delicate second movement and the group having some quiet dignified fun with the third movement variations. The dynamics were perfectly controlled, highlighting more extremes in the livelier movements but with subtler changes in the slower movements. There was mischief in the fourth movement, with the players casually tossing phrases between them whilst maintaining poise and shape.

The String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4 saw a stark change of mood, with Beethoven's tragic key of C minor drawing out of the Takács a more furtive, nervous energy. In the first movement in particular, they were hammering out chords with gusto, interspersed with occasional brightness, whilst in the two middle movements they cleverly captured the minuet quality of the scherzo and the scherzo quality of the minuet. The second movement had a deft touch, while the carefully crafted third movement was more thrusting and pacy with well-judged syncopations. There was furious scurrying in the Finale, with emphatic punctuations and contrasting legato passages, with the Takács revelling in playing the coda as fast as possible (as intended), with a pointedly jokey final flourish.

From the subdued, searching opening of the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, the Takács was deep in mature Beethoven territory, taking the initial reflective and introverted tones through more passionate explorations to create a performance of breathtaking beauty and profound emotional impact. Weaving lines in and out effortlessly, they took care to expose the inner dialogues, with some lovely phrasing around Beethoven's rhythmic ambiguities and a number of moments of serene joy. The extraordinary third movement, Beethoven's “Holy Song of Thanksgiving”, reflecting his recovery from an illness that he feared might have been fatal, opened with the Takács producing a non-vibrato plainsong quality, enhancing the religious overtones. The players mastered this complex movement with a technical brilliance that appeared effortless but which they rendered irrelevant as they allowed the intensity of this life-affirming music to sing through. Following the Takács' skilful navigation of the bright and intricate, but brief, fourth movement, they were straight into the pulsing drive of the Finale, with the ensemble exhibiting complete togetherness and understanding of both the music and each other as they reached the ecstatic conclusion. This was a truly fine performance played with genuine depth and feeling by one of the world's finest chamber ensembles, showing that there is truth in the saying, to paraphrase Beethoven, that "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

*****