In a baritone delivery which could surely lead to voice-over work in the event of a chamber music recession, Takács Quartet leader Edward Dusinberre opened proceedings by humorously talking us through some links: from Beethoven's 1804 Violin Sonata no. 9 Kreutzer Sonata”, through Tolstoy's 1890 namesake novella of music, suspicion and murder, to this programme's opening work, Janáček's 1923 String Quartet no. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”. This would help us identify a motif based on a theme from the Beethoven work, along with others which the quartet feel sure depict elements of Tolstoy's tenebrous tale. An example was the rhythmic figure suggesting the train on which Pózdnyshev, the jealous husband and now self-made widower, begins his first-person narrative.

Takacs Quartet © Keith Sounders
Takacs Quartet
© Keith Sounders
The opening bars featured some deft removal and reattachment of mutes, allowing soloists to emerge from and merge into the crowd – while that crowd stated and restated the lushly harmonised, three-note ascending motif at the work's heart; perhaps “lush” as love tends to prelude jealousy. There was an intriguing ambiguity of mood expressed in this playing. Dark scenes were ahead but did not rule out the tenderness which preceded and caused them.

The interloping, foppish violinist Trukhachévski's theme opens the following con moto movement soon followed by ponticello tremolando which the quartet feel represents Pózdnyshev's unease at Trukhachévski's musical intimacy engaging his own pianist wife. The overtones produced by this effect evocatively suggested the chorus of unbidden thoughts which harry the jealous. The movement's anxious dissonances were projected with great vigour.

The third movement opens with the lyrical, Beethoven-derived theme. Its tenderness may be intended to portray the wife's feelings, her viewpoint being absent in egalitarian Tolstoy's account. More overtone-filled tremolando ensured anxiety's continued presence. The final con moto – adagio revisits the three-note motif, this time played in such a way as to suggest remorse. There was no shortage of murderous pizzicato in this movement and some very fine violin playing by Dusinberre before a feeling of subsidence brought the piece to a close.

It had never struck me until hearing Barber's Adagio from his String Quartet no. 1 immediately after the Janáček that its very familiar theme subdivides into ascending three-note motifs. The expressive outcome is, of course, entirely different. Such are this movement's associations with grief that it may surprise many to discover that the inspiration was Virgil's Georgics, a collection of pastoral verse relating to agriculture. The idea of “a stream growing into a river” was what prompted Barber. It seems odd that his theme should struggle uphill avoiding the gravity to which water defaults.

This must be many violists' favourite Adagio as a great deal of its yearning melodic content is devoted to this Cinderella instrument. Geraldine Walther certainly seemed to be relishing her moment in the sun and produced a beautifully warm sound. The ensemble skill displayed in this performance was very impressive. The very gradual increase in tension and dynamics was finely controlled as were the subtle phrase endings which require much less of a full stop than in more emphatic pieces.

Like the Janáček, Beethoven's String Quartet no. 15 in A minor is a late work (1823-25). Returning to a medium he'd set aside for fourteen years, Beethoven showed no signs of picking up where he'd left off but rather pushed boundaries relentlessly. This is most evident in the central movement of five, Molto adagio-andante which, in the Takács Quartet's own recording, weighs in at around seventeen minutes. Subtitled “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Sacred Song of thanksgiving from one who is recovered, to the Godhead; in the Lydian Mode), the movement expresses thanks for recovery from a life-threatening intestinal complaint. This is expressed by juxtaposing chorale-like sections with more lively ones, surely exhibiting the life grateful to be continuing. The Adagio sections were played with an exquisite otherworldliness which seemed partly to be achieved by minimal use of vibrato – sufficient to project and sustain whilst avoiding any notion of a full heart.

Many listeners feel like they've been through the mill in this third movement and the following Alla marcia is the perfect tonic. Relief comes not only in the form of brevity, approximately two minutes, but with a pinch of irony, nicely highlighted here; the many pauses prevent the relentless tread characteristic of marching. The closing più allegro steals in and, were it not for the triple meter, might feel like a continuation of the fourth movement. It sounded, as Calum MacDonald had coined in his fine programme note, like “a celestial but somewhat melancholic waltz”.

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