In their second appearance last week in the Zankel Hall, the Takács Quartet selected a non-adventurous program including three works, each from a different century. What made this performance outstanding, was not only the immaculate technique displayed and the cohesiveness of the ensemble, that everyone seems to be taking for granted, but the interpreters’ ability to bring forward and shed new light on details one might have ignored even in these relatively frequently performed works.

In the first half, the Takács juxtaposed two masterpieces, composed almost two hundred years apart, in the twilight of their creators’ lives, both displaying an exceptional level of inventiveness. After the preceding three superlative works in Haydn’s Op.76 series, the D major quartet is a kind of oddity. The first movement is not in the usual Sonata-Allegro form but a set of variations alternating between major and minor sonorities, treated here with special candor. The slow movement, one of the most beautiful Haydn ever composed, is in the remote key of F sharp major. From the very beginning, the main motif flowed from Edward Dusinberre’s first violin, to the cello and then viola with such smoothness that you had the impression that the interpreters shared a single bow. The entire Largo cantabile e mesto sounded a forerunner to Beethoven middle period quartets. The last two movements are a return to the jolly style of Papa Haydn but surprises were not lacking. During the trio, András Fejér, on cello, played a series of rumbling, whispering eighths notes, on top of which the rest of the strings embroidered their melody. In one of the typical Haydnesque jokes, the finale starts with six bars where all the strings are playing the same rhythmic pattern that alludes to a movement ending, not to a start. The rest is full of verve, froth and wit, outstandingly conveyed during this performance.

Premiered in 1966, the first in a set of four quartets dedicated to the members of the Beethoven String Quartet, Shostakovich’s Op.122 is a musical eulogy for Vasily Petrovich Shirinsky, a friend of the composer and the founding second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet. Using the key signature of F minor, the Eleventh Quartet has an uncommon structure. Its seven miniature-like parts are played without pause, with motifs mirrored across the movements’ borders. The most important, reappearing in many disguises, is not the initial theme announced by the first violin but a little, full of rhythm segment, vibrantly played by Fejér several bars later. Similar to a Mahler symphony, the Eleventh Quartet represents a voyage through the inner psyche. It starts with bitterness, despair and confusion expressed in the first five fragmentary movements. The sixth – an elegy and the centerpiece of the whole work – seems to be depicting a moment of comprehension, with the unaccompanied second violin, played by Károly Schranz and recalling Shirinsky, leading the way to the finale. Here, reminiscences are brought forward for the last time but fate is accepted, even if the final, long held, C could be perceived as a last shout of grief. Overall, the music is very much about individual voices, not tuttis, and the naturalness with which the instrumentalists “conversed” with each other was truly special.

After intermission, the Takács invited two colleagues from the faculty of the University of Boulder – where the quartet has been ensemble-in-residence for an amazing 32 years – to play the second viola and, respectively, cello in a very fine rendition of Brahms’ String Sextet no. 2 in G major. The inclusion of the two guests – Erika Eckert and David Requiro – did nothing to harm the fantastic cohesiveness displayed by the Takács up to that point. The richness of invention combined with the compositional skill distinguishing the art of the still young Brahms was palpable from the viola’s introductory semi-trill, played with characteristic assertiveness and elegance by Geraldine Walther. The ensemble emphasized Brahms’ ability to meaningfully handle the contrapuntal layering, his deft and expressive manipulation of variations in the Adagio, his adroit introduction of hints of Hungarian folk music in the Scherzo. The whole work was played with such warm élan and romanticism and as if played for the first time.

The Takács Quartet proved once more that among the long-established American quartets they are, arguably, the most reliable.