String quartet writing has often been a deeply personal affair for composers. In the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet, the composer made an effort to communicate with God directly, the slow-evolving work taking on the form of an ethereal hymn. He made clear his thoughts at the top of the score: “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” Janáček, a Czech composer of the late nineteenth century, titled his most famous string quartet “Intimate Letters”—a sappy title worthy of his Romantic heritage—imbuing the music with amorous sentiment for a married woman thirty-seven years his junior. In the twentieth century, Shostakovich, having suffered under Soviet artistic control for decades, used the string quartet to impart his strongest anti-fascist statements. His eighth quartet, famously dedicated to the “victims of fascism and war,” expresses a bleak and oppressive political landscape, even containing moments in which the KGB can be heard knocking on the door.
Indeed, the string quartet is a rare medium, an opportunity to express big musical ideas through four lines of music—two violins, viola, and cello. The simplicity of the instrumentation allows composers to experiment on technical levels, exploring new structures and bizarre harmonic worlds, while the intimate nature of the quartet performance—four musicians, sans conductor—often yields the expression of a more personal musical idea than, say, a large symphony does.
That said, a composer’s vision is only half of the picture. And just as composers have found personal value in string quartet writing, it is widely agreed among musicians (this one included) that few experiences match the intensity of playing in a string quartet. So, Princeton was lucky to host the Takács String Quartet at Richardson Auditorium this past Thursday. The group performed three works: Mozart’s K. 575, the “Prussian” string quartet (music historians love nicknames), Bartók’s sixth quartet, and Schumann’s Op. 41, no. 3. It is sometimes difficult to trust idealistic nineteen-year-olds who love string quartets, but I am positive that it was the best chamber music performance I have ever witnessed.
The Takács quartet—Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz, Geraldine Walther, and András Fejér—has been around since the 1970s, but they recently came into international renown through their spellbinding recordings of the complete Bartók and Beethoven string quartet cycles. I first acquired one of their recordings—the late Beethoven quartets—in 2005, after a summer of heated musical passion and inspiration (band camp). This set of pieces, including the otherworldly Op. 132 mentioned above, spoke directly to my melty sixteen-year-old heart, but the Takács’ performance captivate me on an intellectural level too. Immediately noticeable was the unconventional sound produced by Edward Dusinberre, the first violinist—a role usually reserved for the virtuoso (read: loudest player) in the group. In Mr. Dusinberre’s playing one finds not only leadership through singular beauty and volume, as one might find in a soloist, but also through his incredible ability to temper the character of the group’s sound, from quivering instability to excitement that seems to boil over the normal human capacity to emote (Listening: Takács Quartet, Beethoven Op. 74, First movement, Decca). I was also surprised that he sometimes seemed to disappear into the group. Even during moments when Dusinberre soared above the rest in a passionate melody, his volume never overpowered the others. Later I learned that this was a mark of good quartet playing—knowing when to back off. Over the next few years I accumulated most of their recordings, exploring the great works of Beethoven and Bartók through the Takács Quartet, who quickly became emblematic of my love for chamber music. The music I loved was Beethoven, but it was also Takács.
So, attending a Takács concert was rather like the end of a long journey of self-discovery (and a little like Obama’s campaign). The performance on Thursday night not only confirmed my suspicions that they are the greatest living string quartet, but also proved (once again) that recordings are a poor substitute for live performance. Beginning with the Mozart string quartet, the Takács put on a captivating show. It is a compact work with a hidden dramatic flair. Mozart was above all else a composer of opera, and in the quartet one can hear various operatic lines, the first violinist sometimes acting as the soprano diva, twittering about the instrument with flustered trills and quick, arpeggiated lines. The theme of the last movement is actually a quotation from a duet in The Marriage of Figaro. Unfortunately, the music of Mozart often falls flat if the performer is not committed to the excitement found in nearly every line of music he composed. The Takács handled the drama well: while maintaining a smooth sound—lest they veer into gritty Romantic territory—the music remained lively. This particular quartet, K. 575, contains unusually prominent cello lines, often in the higher registers of the instrument, primarily because it was commissioned by the king of Prussia, himself a cellist. No king would suffer to play bass lines. The result, along with a few other string quartets commissioned by the king, was a series of pieces that radically broke boun-daries in the quartet me-dium—no longer are we in Haydn-esque territory, in which the first violin often carries all the melodies. Fejér, the cellist, handled the lines elegantly, cradling his instrument unusually closely as he swayed eagerly back and forth.
The next piece, Bartók’s sixth and final string quartet, was a radical departure from the Mozart. For those less inclined toward classical music, it’s sort of like comparing that song the Beatles wrote about the Queen to the one they wrote about the War. Bartók’s quartet was written in 1941, the last piece he composed in his native Hungary before reluctantly emigrating to the U.S. It is a brooding, depressive work, clearly indicated by the markings at the beginning of each movement—“Mesto,” sad. The Takács are well known for their rhythmically buoyant, playful, and accurate interpretation of Bartók, and the performance surpassed expectations. They have the unusual ability to combine technical faculty and interpretive power when handling these behemoth compositions. Bartók infused his writing with folk melodies, but the writing is so contrapuntally dense that often groups fail to bring them to light, opting instead for a purely aggressive approach (Listening: Emerson String Quartet, Bartók Quartet No. 4, Fifth movement, DG). The Takács’ playing on Thursday was so lucid, so filled with personality that the technical difficulties evaporated—rather than displaying their showmanship, the Takács displayed their intellect. Watching them was fun: during the third movement, a witty and twisted burlesque, the two violinists turned to face each other directly as their lines intersected dissonantly a quarter-tone apart. Theatricality in music performance can be kitschy, but in this case their message was clear: music is conversational.
The choice of Bartók’s sixth quartet was presumably also a chance for the Takács to display the skills of their new (“new,” since 2005) violist, Geraldine Walther. Walther, who replaced the violist legend (yes, they exist) Roger Tapping, played the unaccompanied solo that begins the work with an ear for the slithering line, choosing in a few places to slide her finger upward instead of shifting. While avoiding the unsavory, her interpretation was moving and startling. It reminded the listener of the circumstances under which Bartók wrote the quartet.
Saved for post-intermission was Schumann’s quartet, the strangest of the three works on the program. Schumann was not a master of the string quartet medium like Bartók or Mozart—his brilliance comes through best on the piano—but he worked hard to produce the three Op. 41 works, methodically studying scores of Mozart and Beethoven quartets in order to teach himself the art. The result was a highly Romantic tribute to the quartet medium—chromatic harmony, feverish ecstasy, classical structure. The second movement eventually arrives at minimalism over a century early. The Takács’ interpretation again seemed effortless, their characteristic energy coming through especially during the feverish finale. It is a shame that most performers (or perhaps concert organizers) don’t have the courage to end a program with Bartók, instead opting for the Romantic route. With the Takács at the helm of the evening, however, the audience was willing to go wherever they took us.