Thursday, March 21, 2013


Plymouth Church
March 19

A Central European sound from Boulder, Colorado.

In an evening of superlatives that included a guest appearance by superstar pianist Garrick Ohlsson, the most striking moment in the Takács Quartet’s performance on Tuesday came in the opening bars of Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet (Op. 76. No. 4). With the audience’s ears and expectations primed by an opening Brahms work, the piece could have stayed in the Romantic mode and sounded glorious. Yet there it was: elegantly Classical, a segue of nearly a century with barely a whisper of transition, a sound beautifully self-contained and absolutely true to the music.

This is emblematic of the Takács Quartet, a world-class string ensemble founded in Budapest in 1975. The group still has a distinctly Central European sound, despite having replaced two of its members with foreigners and relocating to Boulder, Colorado. Most chamber groups achieve notoriety by putting their own mark on the music, developing a specific style of interpretation. The Takács Quartet goes the other way – deep inside the music, finding its heart and revealing its intrinsic beauty without getting in the way. The players don’t so much interpret works as inhabit them.

Their polished familiarity with Tuesday’s program was hardly surprising, as the group has recorded all three pieces, twice in the case of the two Brahms quartets. But the warmth of their tone was captivating, as was the seamless quality of their sound, even in the most complex passages. Over the course of the entire evening, there wasn’t a single sharp edge in the music; it all flowed like water, a technical tour de force.

The somber cast of Brahms’ String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 was anchored by the dark-hued timbre of András Fejér’s cello, enhanced by the rich acoustics of the church. An understated approach kept the tempo moderate and let the music breathe, maintaining remarkable clarity in a score that is often orchestral in its density. The final movement was impassioned but controlled, building gradually to the dramatic breaks and a dynamic finish.

The Haydn work is one of the more serious in the composer’s oeuvre, and a good fit for the Quartet, which kept the darker tones but this time with an airy, silken feel. The opening movement was like morning breezes, and the second wonderfully evocative of evening atmospherics and stars in the sky. The sudden changes in rhythm and texture in the third movement were perfectly realized, transporting listeners to another place entirely. And first violinist Edward Dusinberre was particularly impressive in the intricate runs of the finale, bringing the audience to its feet with a spirited finish.

It seems heretical to characterize Garrick Ohlsson’s appearance for Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and strings in F minor, Op. 34 as anticlimactic. But Ohlsson wasn’t there for the spotlight. He sat behind the players and occupied the same position in the music, playing subdued accompaniment and dropping embellishments and solo phrases into the somber string sound like bright raindrops. The strings were heart-rending at times, even gripping in the extended second violin lines played by Károly Schranz. The deep sound of the cello and Geraldine Walther’s viola added Wagnerian overtones to the third movement, and the finale was a masterful display of intensity and contrast, ranging from soft solos to ringing melodic outbursts from all five players.

The Cleveland Chamber Music Society consistently offers some of the best concerts in the city. But even by its usual standards, this was an exceptional evening of intelligent, well-informed work by brilliant players. The following night, Ohlsson and the Takács Quartet performed the same program at Lincoln Center in New York – no doubt to a much larger audience, at much more expensive ticket prices. At times, classical music fans in Cleveland are truly blessed.

For more on the Takács Quartet:

Photo by Ellen Appel

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