The Takács Quartet

Date and Venue 6 October 2009 | Vancouver Playhouse

Reviewer David Powell

The fine Hungarian Takács Quartet was the season opener of Friends of Chamber Music's 2009/2010 season. Although I sometimes wish that the quartet programs in this series would explore the lesser-known parts of the repertoire a little more, I believe that chamber music lovers are very lucky to have the FOCM Music series. The FOCM brings in the world's very best quartets that give us concerts of the greatest chamber music, played at the highest possible level.

Tonight's concert was no exception. It began with Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat major, "Harp", opus 74. This quartet got its nickname from the use Beethoven made of pizzicato during certain passages in the first movement. It is a work from Beethoven's stylistic 'middle-period', but reaches both back to the early period and forward to the late.

Parts of it, like the straightforward and fun first movement, sound to me as if they could have come from his early opus 18 quartets, while other passages, especially later in the work, seemed to suggest the future Beethoven. His unusual use of Theme and Variations form in the final movement also looks ahead to the great expansion in the use of forms that are a characteristic of his late period.

Shostakovich's Quartet no. 11 in F minor came next. It is in seven short movements, played without a break. The program notes describe is as "a desolate work, infused with suffering". I think this is a good description of a lot of Shostakovich's music. And yet there is greatness in it. It features a good deal of musical anguish but ends in peace, with a hushed first violin solo floating gently above a soft bed of sound created by the other three voices.

The second half brought us back to Beethoven and his Quartet in B-flat major, opus 130. I sometimes find Beethovens's later music baffling, at least in places, but there is nothing baffling about this work. Although clearly of the late style period, I find this piece more accessible, comprehensible, and musically logical than much of his other late music, especially the piano sonatas. I felt this coming through in the Takác's playing of the piece, too. There was wonderful clarity in their reading of the work; every musical gesture and phrase made sense.

The Takács is a fine quartet. Throughout the evening it was a pleasure to watch them interact and communicate with each other, to watch their expressive but not excessive body language, and their facial expressions, and to enjoy their fine ensemble and the immense palette of musical colours they have to draw on.

Nowhere was their skill more in evidence than during what was for me the high point of the evening, the 'Cavatina', the penultimate movement of opus 130. As at the end of the Shostakovich, the first violin sings above a sustained accompaniment. The effect is hauntingly beautiful. And, for a brief moment, time stands still.

© 2009 David Powell