Stunning work from quartet



Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall/Last Friday

It is no secret that Beethoven's string quartets are hardly performed on concert stages here.

Over-reverence and trepidation on the part of musicians account for this and audiences here are the poorer as a result. So it was a treat to witness an evening of Beethoven quartets performed by the world- renowned Takacs Quartet.

Formed in 1975 by four Hungarian students in Budapest, it is now based in Boulder, Colorado, with two of the original members still performing. The interpretation of Beethoven's 16 string quartets is the bedrock of its repertoire and the three quartets performed come from the three distinct periods of composition in the German composer's career.

The congenial G Major Quartet (Op. 18 No. 2) from Beethoven's early period followed earlier models of Haydn and Mozart, albeit displaying signs of a free-spirited mind.

From the outset, the ensemble showed why it is considered one of the world's finest. First violinist Edward Dusinberre's leadership is impeccable. His entries were direct and clear-headed and he shared close audio, visual and almost telepathic contact with his colleagues.

The playing by the foursome, including second violinist Karoly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist Andras Fejer, coalesced as one, although each part could be distinctly discerned. This was the coming together of singular minds, with the ultimate objective of cohesion and projection keenly maintained over the two-hour programme.

When the surface calm was stirred, as in the first movement's development, the pacing and level of dissonance increased, but the quartet remained resolute.

The F Minor Quartet (Op. 95), from the middle period of Beethoven's career, was a jarring contrast, with storm and stress in its four minor-key movements. Its nickname, "Serioso", was taken seriously by the musicians, whose muscle and sinew strained to deliver the music's angry and sombre message.

Yet, there were subtle gradations within this angst and indignation, which the quartet brought out trenchantly. With the wave of a wand, the finale turned from darkness to the light of a major-key and finished with an acute start.

The second half of the concert was reserved for the C Sharp Minor Quartet (Op. 131) from Beethoven's late period. The 40-minute utterance of seven connected movements, which broke the mould of previous compositions, boggled the mind with myriad changes of mood, emotion and disposition that mirrored the journey of the soul of the stone-deaf, disease-racked and spiritually scarred composer.

Dusinberre's stark opening solo was issued like a cry for help and the other strings piled on their responses in a contrapuntal maze. Before any resolution could be had, the jolly second movement and interlude-like third movement arrived, followed by the fourth movement's theme and variations.

The quartet kept the audience enthralled, listening in wait of what might happen next. Such is the elusive narrative quality of absolute music that only an outfit such as Takacs can convey with utter immediacy and vividness.

By the close of the passionately hewn finale, the chorus of bravos that rang out was a just indication of its stunning success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Stunning work from quartet'. Print Edition | Subscribe