This was a short BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, but a very good one. Of course, nothing less would be expected from the Takács Quartet, who surely have a very good claim to be the world's foremost string quartet. Even if only for a sold-out hour, all the characteristics which make them great were amply on show here.

Takacs Quartet, © Ellen Appel
Takacs Quartet,
© Ellen Appel

The two quartets on offer were connected by particular musical episodes rather than any wider theme. Both start with what seem to be themes on the three lower instruments, with these 'themes' then shifting ingeniously into accompaniment at the first violin's entry. The motoric beginnings of both finales, too, ape one another. That aside, here the Haydn (1790) and the Dvořák (1879) occupied entirely different sound worlds, brought out more by the Takács than might have been the case with other quartets. Their Haydn can be brittle, but 'The Lark' fluttered in sunshine with wit. Occasionally (rightly) drifting towards Mozart and Beethoven, they always treated Haydn as a composer to be enjoyed in his own right. If their Haydn sounded symphonic, their Dvořák was even more so, with a Brahmsian power like that of his Seventh Symphony.

Surprisingly, some of the playing in the Haydn was a little scrappier than usually heard from this quartet. Still, there was nothing not to smile at. Haydn's thematic brilliance was artfully pointed to, but never pointedly underlined, allowing it to unfold in the first movement with a carefree airiness. Leader Edward Dusinberre allowed the opening phrases from which this quartet takes its nickname to soar gracefully. Beethovenian stillness hovered in the distance in the second slow movement, Dusinberre treating Haydn's Cantabile marking as an invitation to draw gorgeous, soprano-like nuance from his violin. The pointing of the off-kilter minuet was supreme, ending with a wink of a half-finished closing phrase. The Vivace finale did not suffer too much from occasional missed notes in its quick runs: they were inconsequential next to such easygoing freneticism, with virtuosity serving musical ends.

There was considerably less lightness in the Dvořák. With a much broader, deeper, mistier tone than in the Haydn, this was an even better performance. There was a hush around it, a Slavonic darkness surrounding the quartet's storytelling. The constant variations on simple themes looked admiringly sideways to Brahms, especially in the first movement, but with added moodiness. That first movement, with its reflective episodes and quick-changing colours, felt like a good long walk, the opening material returning serenely at the end with a sense of half-resolution, coming thematically and emotionally home. But in the 'Dumka' second movement there was an ineffable sense of something lost. Here the colouring from the Takács players was beautiful, slow chord sequences suavely balanced and moods only hinted-at when they did not need to be embodied. There was pain too in the Romance (a romance in Mozart's sense, experienced from a distance): its rich double-stopped chords sounded tentative, paradoxically sparse and cold. Melancholy, though, was eventually dispelled in the rondo finale, which drove haltingly to a thrilling conclusion.