In honour of Schubert’s 218th birthday, Wigmore Hall decided to invite celebrated associate artists the Takács Quartet to perform a selection of the composer’s works for string quartet. Of course, even an excuse as spurious as the celebration of a 218th birthday is good enough when it provides an opportunity to hear some of this extraordinary repertoire. The choice of pieces however, all of them in the minor key, was far from jubilant, not least in the C Minor Quartettsatz with which the programme opened.

Takács Quartet © Keith Saunders
Takács Quartet
© Keith Saunders

Not really finding their feet until the repeat of the exposition, the Takács succeeded all the same in communicating the rhetorical immediacy of this music, whilst not attempting to gloss over its formal strangeness. Such an approach served them well here but was less successful in their performance of the A minor “Rosamunde” Quartet that followed.

The Takács are deservedly reknowned for their playing of Beethoven, and Bartók for that matter. The tight motivic working of both of these composers demands an approach to time that is forever moving, almost restless, whereas Schubert’s music often requires an experience more akin to stasis. With this element of the music largely absent from their interpretation, the Takács' performance of the first movement seemed hurried and poorly structured, though the accumulated outpourings of the development were very powerful. The refusal to linger served them better in the slow movement, allowing the myriad transformations of the simple opening theme to blur into one another without the need for excessive demarcation. The minuet and finale were also both convincingly executed but, particularly in the minuet, the interpretation lacked depth.

In fact the first half overall, whilst generally engaging, did not quite reach the heights of which one knows the Takács are capable. There was a broad lack of rhythmic inflection present in their playing, and the sound was at times a touch opaque, often dominated by the – admittedly sweet-sounding – playing of first violinist Edward Dusinberre.

If the first half left one marginally underwhelmed, the second made up for it with a riveting performance of the Death and the Maiden Quartet in D minor. Here the constant forward momentum that characterises the Takács' playing found a suitable home, and the growing comfort of the players was evident in the increasing expressivity of their movements on stage. Their rendition of the slow movement, in particular, merits special praise for the glorious transparency and colouristic variety they achieved; both composer and performers were well served here, the inventiveness of the former in his continuing reconfiguration of the same variation theme ably supported by the latter. The last two movements displayed a clarity of articulation and a compelling control of dynamics, which served to render the music straightforward yet invigorating. The Takács may not be born interpreters of Schubert, but the quality of their musicianship sees them more than able to navigate this music with aplomb.