There was a moment of suspended silence and then an audible exhalation of breath after the Takács Quartet brought Béla Bartók’s String Quartet no. 6 to a hushed close on Tuesday night. The broken spell reflected not only the hypnotic grip the ensemble had on the piece and their audience, but the conclusion of an intense encounter with the Hungarian composer – all six string quartets played over two consecutive evenings at Plymouth Church in Cleveland.

Takács Quartet © Keith Saunders
Takács Quartet
© Keith Saunders

The Takács Quartet has a long and deep relationship with these pieces, which they recorded on a 1998 release that Gramophone named the “Best Chamber Recording” of the year. They are taking the complete set on tour to other U.S. cities this spring, presented as they were in Cleveland: nos. 1, 3 & 5 on the first night, and 2, 4 & 6 on the second. Grouping them in odd/even combinations balances the times of the performances and, more importantly, gives listeners a chance to appreciate the entire arc of Bartók’s musical thinking and development on both nights.

What is most striking hearing the string quartets in that concentration is the revolutionary genius of the composer. The first might be regarded as a transitional piece that employs familiar patterns and techniques even as it reflects new directions in 20th century music. In the rest,  Bartók completely deconstructs the form and rebuilds it according to his own ideas and purposes. Played with the clarity and intelligence that the Takács Quartet brings to the works, they unfold like a dazzling series of revelations, each a new adventure in structure, a fresh blend of flavors and influences, an emergence of powerful voices.

Those voices came to the fore quickly on the second night. A gripping opening movement to no. 2 set up the insistent ostinato in the second movement, played in a fierce attack that gathered momentum but never lost the sound of four distinct instruments. Each was like a separate soul in anguish, driven to a dramatic frenzy that suddenly broke and gave way to the deep melancholy of the third and final movement, in which the waves of anxiety receded and the voices, softer now, became meditative and resigned.

One of the characteristics of the Takács Quartet is its distinctive admixture of precision and warmth, which gave most of the pieces a burnish of controlled passion. For no. 4, the group opened up a bit, putting a sharper edge on the sound and an electric charge, particularly in the opening and closing movements, which mirror one another. After the flying sparks of the first movement, the lush texture of the second was like a study in detail, with four ultra-fine voices meshed in shimmering scales and glissandos.

Cellist András Fejér was especially eloquent in the pivotal middle movement, striking a strong, pure tone above the hazy background of the other strings. The all-pizzicato fourth was a tour de force – who knew plucking the strings could produce so many different sounds? It was also an opportunity to get a close-up look at the “Bartók pizzicato,” which calls for plucking the string so strongly that it snaps off the body. The music is too serious for the effect to be humorous, but there was wit and style in the group’s execution of the technique. There was a note of playfulness in their rendering of the freewheeling snatches of melody in the final movement.

Individual voices were again strong in no. 6, opening with a smooth viola solo, the cello dominant in the second movement, then the spectral tones of the third coalescing into a full complement of harsh strokes played tight and fast, as if produced by a single instrument. The quartet dug deep for the finale, drawing on a well of emotion with an exquisite craftsmanship that left everyone holding their breath.

Is it possible for an ensemble to get better over the course of two nights? Given the caliber of the Takács Quartet, it’s almost absurd to talk about one performance being better than another. Yet along with the music there was a clear sense of development in the playing, which seemed to grow both more studied and more spontaneous as the pieces became more complex. By the end, the ensemble was not so much playing the quartets as inhabiting them, bringing them to impassioned life with a riveting combination of freshness and authority.

For the enthusiastic crowd that called the Quartet back for multiple bows, Bartók will never sound quite the same again.