Classical music is the last thing one would expect to find behind the historic Village gate at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Don’t let the venue fool you; (Le) Poisson Rouge regularly plays host to a myriad of performers. Thursday night, it was the Takács Quartet.

© Ellen Appel
© Ellen Appel

Comprised of Edward Dusinberre (violin), Karoly Schranz (violin), Geraldine Walther (viola) and András Fejér (cello), the Takács Quatret is a well-established group, having recently been awarded the 2011 Royal Philharmonic Society Award in Chamber Music and Song. Thursday night, Takács did not disappoint.

Opening with Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet in E-flat major, Opus 51, the Takács Quartet offered up a sublime performance. Dvořák’s music hung heavy in the air, engulfing the audience in its warm, tonal harmonies. From the playful, gypsy-like strumming on the cello to the syncopated rhythms in the final climax of the piece, it was easy to hear why this piece is fondly referred to as the Slavonic Quartet.

Despite the punk-rock venue, the first half of the performance felt oddly conventional; the performers played with commanding artistry and expression while the audience sat back and enjoyed beautiful classical music. There were no surprises…until the second half of the concert. Violinist Edward Dusinberre sat back on his piano stool and directed his attention to the audience. Before performing Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Dusinberre outlined the piece, pointing out the many transformations of its themes. A warm and intimate touch, the whole concert suddenly felt modern and inviting.

Although the two pieces are united by their folkish inspirations, Bartók’s music could not be more different from Dvořák’s. Where Dvořák’s themes were warm and clean, Bartók’s were cluttered, brittle and hard; even Bartók’s syncopated rhythms, which were meant to be festive, felt haunting because of their atonal quality. But the Takács Quartet never wavered. Their technical mastery shone through as the music gravitated from dark, hellish music, dominated by what violinist Dusinberre described as a ‘drug-induced theme’, to an almost jovial village fest.

But Bartók’s string quartet never quite attains that gleeful feel; rather, because it is so demanding to both perform and hear, it remains enmeshed in a sprawling atonal world. The Takács Quartet faced all of these challenges head on and captivated their audience. Particularly in the fourth movement, the original theme takes on a new character and is played pizzicato in all four parts. Here, the music still felt hellish but its muted tones made the audience feel very tense and expectant of an awful surprise. Even when the cello opened up into a humanizing solo, the piece still felt trapped in a haunting dream. All the way to the end, when the piece unexpectedly drops off, the Takács Quartet kept audiences on the very edge of their seats.

Demanding from start to finish, the Takács Quartet embraced the jarring quality of Bartók’s quartet, sharing their affinity with this extraordinary music in a spellbinding performance.