Each time I hear the Takács Quartet in concert a new excellence comes through: this time it is their gentleness. Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor, “Rosamunde” is allowed to unfold gently, as the petals of a rose open themselves. Edward Dusinberre’s first violin sings the wistful theme – a reference to the composer’s heavy-hearted song “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”, whose lyric sets the mood: “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, I’ll find it never, never again”. András Fejér’s cello throbs; the voices of the second violin (Károly Schranz) and viola (Geraldine Walther) murmur in unison, each distinct in the blend without a trace of harshness.

Takács Quartet © Ellen Appel
Takács Quartet
© Ellen Appel

The theme of the Andante is also borrowed from a song Schubert had written for a play, Rosamunde, that depicts another solitary girl – a shepherdess and her flock in a tranquil valley. Feyér’s feather-light touch on the cello introduces the ghostly theme of the Menuetto taken from Schubert’s song on words by Schiller that long for the return of carefree youth. The Trio dances gently, swelling with emotion and warmth. The Finale is a cautiously festive peasant dance.

Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet no. 1 in D major, removed us from a pastoral landscape, moving to England’s bleak, craggy, windswept Aldeburgh seacoast. Accordingly, Britten’s soundscape is abuzz with sharply contrasting sonics and witty commentary, but the Takács never depart from the basic gentleness of their approach.

Edward Dusinberre’s first violin and Geraldine Walther’ viola introduce a high-colour dissonance sul ponticello amusingly grounded by staggering steps from the plucked cello. As the tempo shifts to a rhythmic, crackling pace, the ensemble’s tone develops gritty and shrill note-clusters like locust swarms, but without crossing the line of gentleness. Britten’s wit is displayed in the movement’s ongoing alternation of contrasting colours that ends with the cello strummed like a guitar behind the opening’s glassine keening.

The second movement Scherzo is impish and rude, played fast in bouncy, farty and sometimes creepy rythms bordering on a march quite like the good-naturedly grotesque processions you get in Prokofiev. The Andante, which sparkles with Haydnesque dialogues, is the work’s emotional centre. The ensemble work is a seamless blend without an apparent leader. Outstanding are the pizzicato cello; soulful, declamatory statements by each member, most notably the viola; and an overall organ-toned dissonance that brings to mind Shostakovich. The molto vivace Finale had touches of hoedown, and ended in a boisterous rush that brought the audience to its feet.

The Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin have toured extensively with Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor. Their deep rapport was evident from the solo piano’s phrasing of the dark opening motif of the Prelude, to the subsequent entry of the violins playing the theme while piano and viola join in accompaniment. M. Hamelin’s intensity, force and volume circulated naturally through Shostakovich’s classical textures and the Takács’ gentle style, like dark arterial blood. Another glory of this work is that Shostakovich varies his instrumental units, notably the closing section of the Fugue (Adagio) where the cello carries the melody while the piano, over the plaintive voices of the accompanying violins, tolls like a great bell.

The hectic, folk dance-like Scherzo mingles a jigging two-phrase piano tune with string accompaniment that is aggressive within the bounds of a smooth, almost feminine delicacy. I found the burnished tonal blend at this point breathtaking. Following a brief Intermezzo with the strings singing a meld of timing, tone and timbre that mimicked an organ, the Finale brings in the clowns. Marc-André Hamelin’s piano works with the Takács’ strings like diamonds set in coils of braided hair, like bells ringing in the sway of willows weeping in the wind. It is oddly right and satisfying that the conclusion is soft and gentle, as if the composer, when he was done, decided to just walk away and not look back.

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