Like the mythical Antaeus, constantly needing to keep in contact with the earth in order to keep his powers intact, the Takács Quartet has always returned to the music of Beethoven. Their recordings are amidst the most treasured of the digital era and the foursome continue to perform the entire set of string quartets regularly. They took up this enormous challenge again this season in multiple locations, but not in New York City, where the audience has had to settle for a single appearance as part of Lincoln Center’s “Great Performers” series. The recital was a clear demonstration of both the degree of technical and emotional interconnectedness the members of this ensemble have attained after so many years of performing together, and the Takács Quartet’s extraordinary affinity for the music of Beethoven, for its constant play between structure and emotion, between respect for tradition and outlandish innovations.

Tákacs Quartet © Keith Saunders
Tákacs Quartet
© Keith Saunders

When choosing the component parts for a performance entirely devoted to Beethoven’s quartets, an obvious alternative is to pick one opus from each of the composer’s creative periods and to present them in chronological order. The listeners can then appreciate the extraordinary evolution of his style, from music written under the sign of Haydn and Mozart to works that are so daring that they were considered incomprehensible by his contemporaries and sound very modern almost two hundred years later.

For their concert in Alice Tully Hall, the Takács did follow the above-mentioned custom but they decided to switch around the order of performance, by placing the Op.135, the last significant full work Beethoven completed, in between an early quartet, Op.18, no.6, and a middle period one, Op.59, no.3. It was an interesting choice, highlighting unobvious connections. The Grave/Allegro question and answer in the final movement of the Op.135 can be linked to the pairing between the Adagio and its Allegreto quasi Allegro resolution in La Malancolia, the last movement of the Op.18, no.6. A similar connection over time could be considered between the rhythmic ambiguities in the former’s Vivace and the latter’s Scherzo.

With only four movements, the String Quartet in F major, Op. 135 is less ambitious than the other late quartets in terms of size and with respect to breaking new stylistic boundaries. It does indeed find inspiration, like the Op.18 did, in the quartets of Beethoven’s one time teacher, Joseph Haydn. The F major’s apparent simplicity is not a return to preexisting conventions, but the result – as the Takács made clear in their performance – of forging a new reality using knowledge gained from a lifetime of experimenting. The opening Allegretto’s music is in a classical sonata form but it brims with elements of counterpoint in the development section. The Vivace with all the asymmetries disrupting the ternary meter invokes Beethoven’s symphonic dance music. The hymn like Lento assai is close to the Op. 130’s Cavatina. In this version, the last movement, “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss/ The difficult resolution”, was neither an expression of concerns regarding fate and destiny nor a mundane joke related to a payment reminder. Instead, the interpreters focused on the splendid transitional passages.

The B-flat major, the last of the Op.18 set, was the first work on the afternoon program. The Takács remarkably rendered the contrast between the humor and buoyancy characterizing the fast segments and the tender, full of glimpses of the mature Beethoven, music in the slow ones. They clearly shaped every detail. As always, there were obvious signs that their exquisite phrasing was not the result of last week’s rehearsals but a consequence of a long-time maturing process.

After intermission, the Takács played the last of the Razumovsky quartets, bringing to live more than anywhere else in the program the radicalness of this music, its ability to shock and challenge listeners’ perceptions even today. From the harmonic ambiguities of the introduction to the first movement, to the soulful, Russian sounding, Andante, to the irresistible force of the devilish fugal movement in the Allegro molto, this was an extraordinary performance. It explained perhaps the reason for this ensemble’s continuous success: a fresh eyes and enthusiastic approach to every work, even if it is performed for the hundredth times.

One can only hope that a full cycle of Beethoven’s quartets in New York is not too far away in the Takács’ future plans.