Sunday night saw the third of five concerts in this season from the Takács Quartet, with a focus on repertoire written within the bounds of the former Hapsburg Empire. The start of this concert, however, took us much further away, with music written when Dvořák was taking a holiday from his post at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. The String Quartet in F Op. 96 “American” germinated from a theme rather grandiosely intended to be the new American national anthem, which was eventually co-opted into the string quartet’s second movement. Dvořák was holidaying in an area with a large Czech community, and as such the work has a similar style to his Symphony no.9 of filtering the New World through lenses from the old.

Takács Quartet © Keith Saunders
Takács Quartet
© Keith Saunders

The Takács Quartet started brightly, with an Allegro ma non troppo bristling with energy, yet with a full richness of tone. The closeness of the quartet was clear, as they enjoyed the textures and pulled the tempo around with confidence. At times the levels of energy meant the music threatened to get away from them, a feeling which carried on throughout the entire piece. The Lento second movement took a few seconds to settle, but there was that beautiful richness again, particularly in the lower registers. The Scherzo had a slightly rougher sound which fit well the pastoral nature of the music and the quartet was especially good when working as paired units. In the Finale there were lovely moments of interplay, but again, when playing together at speed there was a slight knife-edge element to the music. Perhaps this was intentional, as they came together at the end for a confident, exuberant finish.

Janáček’s String Quartet No.1 “Kreutzer Sonata” was written in his later years, and marked a return to material by Tolstoy. Some time in the past he had composed a piano trio (which does not survive) based on the novella The Kreutzer Sonata. A jealous husband’s suspicions that his wife is having an affair with a violinist are inflamed as she plays the opening presto of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, and he murders her after discovering her with the violinist. Janáček, unlike Tolstoy, was sympathetic to the wife, envisaging “a poor woman, suffering, beaten, battered to death”.

Elements of the Takács Quartet’s performance were brutal, particularly in the final movement. The opening, however, neatly contrasted the impassioned wife in the ensemble with the cold rage of the husband on the solo sul pont entries. Outside these contrasting moments, the movement felt a little slow and in want of a defter touch as a result. The brutality began to tell in the second movement, a warning of what was to come, as the quartet built up the textures to a passionate climax. There wasn’t as much a sense of seduction in the third movement as a mournfulness, alternating with moments of cold rage. Again there was a little too much heaviness to the playing, which intensified in the final movement, after an effectively subdued opening. The Più mosso began brightly but slowed, which may have been the cause of some intonation problems. At times there was a sense of being physically bludgeoned with the music, before it sank down to a resigned close.

The introduction of Graham Mitchell after the interval brought a welcome anchor to the ensemble in Dvořák’s String Quintet in G Op.77. Written in 1875 as Op.18, it is unusual in that instead of adding a second viola or cello, Dvořák brings in a double bass. The composer revised the work (removing an entire slow movement) in 1888, entering it into his catalogue as Op.77. The presence of the double bass was immediately felt, with deep foreboding octaves underlining the Allegro con fuoco marking of the first movement. These quickly dispersed into a dance of taut fluidity, which was simultaneously given a stately quality and deftness. There was real fire as the movement developed and it built to a rousing climax. The Scherzo had a pastoral quality akin to the “American” quartet, yet the tight ensemble took us into whimsical and wistful territory too. The switching between tonal centres was beautifully shaded in playing that was finely poised all the way to its triumphant finish.

The opening of the third movement had a soothing warmth, before moving into a sense of urgency as the music progressed towards a radiant E major central section, and back again. The Allegro assai returned to the driving momentum of the earlier movement, joyful from start to finish as the ensemble rounded off its deft, focused performance in style.