As the penultimate offering of its 69th season, the Cleveland Chamber Music Society hosted the Takács Quartet at the historic Plymouth Church, situated just outside the city proper in the suburb of Shaker Heights. In addition to presenting a hearty helping of the string quartet literature, thanks are due to violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes for an insightful pre-concert interview, moderated by Eric Kisch of WCLV, Cleveland’s classical radio. Rhodes is the quartet’s most recent addition, wonderfully coalescing into the group following the retirement of Károly Schranz last year, and thus cellist András Fejér now stands as its sole founding member – a remarkable tenure of some 44 years.

Takács Quartet
© Amanda Tipton

It is perhaps only apt for a string quartet to begin a recital with Haydn, the man who virtually invented the genre as we know it. The selection at hand was the D minor quartet from Op.76, Haydn’s last full set of string quartets, nicknamed “Fifths” for its abundance of that interval – a simple gesture that proved a source of boundless inspiration for the composer’s perennially fertile mind. In the expansive opening movement, one was taken by the Takács’ transparency and clarity of every nuance as conveyed through an effortless chemistry. The minor key tonality had some of the fire of Haydn’s earlier Sturm und Drang forays, yet ultimately the present work wasn’t a terribly stormy affair. A leisurely tempo that astutely resisted any urge to drag marked the slow movement, and the Minuet was of great rhythmic vitality in its sharp accents and folksy trio. The sprightly finale maintained a certain restlessness until its sunnier conclusions, resolutely in the major.

The time machine was then fast-forwarded a century and a half to bring the audience to Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 4 in D major. Like so much of his output, this quartet is fraught by the composer’s tenuous relationship with the Soviet authorities, at once passionately endeavoring to communicate the dark realities of the regime, while also wanting to preserve his career – if not his life. Nonetheless, the work in question wasn’t permitted a public performance until after Stalin’s death. Matters began with unsettling meandering, increasingly agitated, with a long-breathed drone in the cello the only point of stasis. The quartet presented the material with clear direction, giving meaning to meandering, leading to the movement’s waning close, marked morendo (“dying”).

The Andantino saw Shostakovich at his most lyrical, the arching lyricism in Dusinberre’s violin music of striking repose and beauty. Lighter material followed, complete with rollicking invocations of William Tell (as the composer would interpolate again in his final symphony), leading attacca to the finale, the heart of the work. Here Shostakovich employed elements of Jewish folk music, not unlike the conclusion of the Second Piano Trio, but in this case rather more obliquely, as if experiencing the folk tradition through a distant echo. In any case, it is certainly plausible that the tradition’s ambiguity was of great appeal to the composer's duality, insofar as it was interlaced with elements of dance and despair in equal measure. The texture built to blistering intensity, only to fade away against a drone in the upper bound of the cello.

Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor is an attractive work that, perplexingly, doesn’t often find its way onto concert programs. Bold beginnings opened with just the right amount of Nordic chill, introducing a motto theme that bound the movements together. The spacious first movement, nearly symphonic in scope, drew playing of great passions from the quartet, interwoven with more lyrical episodes. In a particularly arresting moment, the motto resurfaced in the cello against ghostly tremolos. A simple Romanza followed, free from any pretensions of profundity, although some unexpected turns were taken with rapid playing cleanly negotiated by all. The Intermezzo owed its distinctive inflection to Norwegian folk music, a cheerful affair with the musicians clearly enjoying themselves. The finale took the rhythm of the saltarello, given with infectious energy and seamless cohesion, and a reminiscence of the work’s opening pointed towards a dramatic concluding gesture.