Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Plymouth Church
March 18

Precision and passion in a two-night marathon.

There was a moment of absolute stillness and then an audible exhalation of breath after the Takács Quartet brought Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6 to a hushed close on Tuesday night. The broken spell reflected not only the hypnotic grip the ensemble had on the piece and their audience, but the conclusion of an intense encounter with the Hungarian composer – all six of his string quartets played over two evenings at Plymouth Church.

The Takács Quartet has a long and deep relationship with the pieces, which they recorded on a 1998 release that Gramophone named the Best Chamber Recording of the year. They presented them in an odd-even pairing – Nos. 1, 3 & 5 on the first night, and 2, 4 & 6 on the second. That grouping balanced the length of the concerts and, more importantly, gave listeners a chance to appreciate the entire arc of Bartók’s musical thinking and development on both nights.

What is most striking hearing the string quartets in that concentration is the revolutionary genius of the composer. The first quartet is a transitional work that employs familiar patterns and techniques even as it reflects new directions in 20th-century music. In the rest, Bartók completely deconstructs the form and rebuilds it according to his own ideas and purposes. Played with the clarity and intelligence that the Takács Quartet brings to the works, they unfold like a dazzling series of revelations, each a new adventure in structure, a fresh blend of flavors and influences, and an emergence of powerful new harmonies.

In the solemn tones of No. 1 on Monday night, the group established its sound, a distinctive admixture of precision and warmth with Old World style and depth. That fit the piece perfectly, as the opening elegy gave way to livelier rhythms and the first flashes of the folk idioms that became an increasing part of Bartók’s work. In No. 3, written nearly 20 years later, they appear as brief squirts of melody and curlicues of color amid slashing violin lines and fiery passages in which all four instruments are going in separate directions. The players seemed psychically linked in their seamless execution and tight, controlled sound.

A fierce start on No. 5 set the tone for a thrilling rendering of the piece, which dissects melodies as quickly as it creates them, and mixes squeals, chattering and other odd noises into a fast-paced blend of folk and classical rhythms. This calls for virtuoso playing skills, but the group was even more impressive in its ability to pull all the disparate elements together into an organic sound, as if one voice were speaking in many intonations and colors.

On Tuesday, a gripping opening movement in No. 2 set up the insistent ostinato in the second movement, which gathered an irresistible momentum but never lost the sound of four distinct instruments. Each was like a separate soul in anguish, driven to a dramatic frenzy that suddenly broke and gave way to the deep melancholy of the third and final movement, in which the waves of anxiety receded and the voices, softer now, became meditative and resigned.

For No. 4, the group opened up a bit, putting a sharper edge on the sound and an electric charge particularly in the opening and closing movements, which mirror one another. The all-pizzicato fourth was a tour de force – who knew plucking the strings could produce so many different sounds? It was also an opportunity to get a close-up look at the “Bartók pizzicato,” which calls for plucking the string so strongly that it snaps against the instrument. The music is too serious for the effect to be humorous, but there was panache in the group’s execution of the technique. And a note of playfulness in the freewheeling snatches of melody in the final movement.

Individual voices were strong in No. 6 – a smooth opening viola solo, the cello dominant in the second movement, then the spectral tones of the third coalescing into a full complement of harsh strokes played tight and fast. The quartet dug deep for the finale, drawing on a well of emotion with an exquisite craftsmanship that left everyone holding their breath.

Is it possible for an ensemble to get better over the course of two nights? Given the caliber of the Takács Quartet, it’s almost absurd to talk about one performance being better than another. Yet along with the music there was a clear sense of development in the playing, which seemed to grow both more studied and more spontaneous as the pieces became more complex. By the end, the ensemble was not so much performing the quartets as inhabiting them, bringing them to impassioned life with a riveting combination of freshness and authority.

For more on the Takács Quartet:

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