Takács Quartet brings out the surprises and dissonance at Rockport Festival

July 7, 2019 at 12:41 pm

By Andrew J. Sammut

The Takacs Quartet performed Saturday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Amanda Tipton

The Takács Quartet performed Saturday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Amanda Tipton

Founded by four friends in Budapest in 1975, and based in Boulder since 1983, even with many personnel changes, the Takács Quartet has been packing venues and winning awards for more than four decades.

The ensemble played to another full house at the Shalin Liu Performance Center Saturday night as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.

The concert featured music by masters of the string quartet working with dissonance, starting with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C (K. 465). This was the last of six quartets Mozart dedicated to his mentor and friend Haydn. It became known as “the” Dissonance quartet for its unnerving introduction. Sustained notes in the violins and cello alongside the viola moving just one half-step lend an air of uncertainty, never settling on one key.

The Takács Quartet’s seamless blend and unified approach allow it to play well-known works with freshness as well as confidence. Mozart’s dissonant Adagio took on a unique tinge of melancholy. First violinist Edward Dusinberre’s strong lead left plenty of space for individual voices. Second violinist Harumi Rhodes and violist Geraldine Walther colored and pushed the music subtly and powerfully from inside. Rather than simply supporting from the bottom, cellist András Fejér (the only remaining founding member) caressed the unique part-writing of Mozart’s quartet, as he did throughout the evening.

The quartet leapt into the succeeding Allegro like it was an exciting twist no one saw coming. The Andante cantabile was carefully shaped yet always sounded spontaneous. They let the trio section of the third movement, with Mozart’s sneaky melody and counterpoint, largely speak for itself, while volleying the lead in the concluding Allegro with such precision that the next voice seemed unexpected. First violinist Dusinberre also displayed nimble runs and a glistening tone that still grew organically out of the ensemble.

A sense of discovery also made Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 musically exciting as well as musicologically interesting. Not strictly atonal, Bartók’s modernist statement of 1928 remains tonally ambiguous and aggressively chromatic while building off motifs from the folk music of the composer’s native Hungary. Strong attacks, rough scrapes, cool sustained notes, paper-thin shrieks and mid-range crushes marked the first movement. The second movement, played with all four instruments muted, acquired a hazy quality as the four players crept as one.

The third movement of Bartók’s quartet hints at melody and peace amidst all the disturbance. Fejér’s careful inflection and centered tone gradually opened up dynamically into a more extroverted yet eerie monolog. Second violinist Rhodes came to the fore in a smoldering solo. The following movement, an exercise in pizzicato effects for all four players, was both a virtuosic display and a game to keep the pulse despite the composer’s offbeat accents. The frenzied Hungarian dance finale released a lot of tension as the quartet boomed like a full orchestra.

Following intermission, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, synthesized elements from the program’s first half. This work also begins with a slow, dissonant introduction, here played with shifts in balance as though the key and the mood could go in any direction. The ensuing Allegro vivace showed off two sides of the composer: swaggering phrases illustrating a craftsman writing refined works for Viennese sophisticates and a development section revealing an artist exploring the limits of tonality. Takács explored it all as its repeated phrases and dialogs grew more powerful.

The third and final “Razumovsky” quartet that Beethoven dedicated to the Russian ambassador also borrows from Central and Eastern European traditional music in its second movement. Each musician played with the simmering intimacy and simple, direct musicality of a folk singer. By contrast, the third movement Menuetto demonstrated the quintessential sound of the string quartet: lush, perfectly in-sync and very cultivated.

They tore into the concluding Allegro molto fugue. Taken at an extremely fast clip, this reading emphasized massed effects and long lines over contrapuntal details. Violist Walther fired up the ensemble from inside while maintaining her poised, oaky sound. Occasionally—yet convincingly—the quartet sacrificed a bit of polish in the interest of taking risks.

All three works challenged the public in their time: Mozart was accused of making mistakes in his score, Beethoven’s piece was criticized for its length and complexity and Bartók’s modernism has always alienated the diatonically minded. This challenging music is now standard concert repertoire. Yet the Takács Quartet has become an institution not just by playing familiar works well, but by playing music that can still surprise listeners.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival continues with the pianist Max Levinson joined by pianist Sae Yoon Chon, cellist Andrés Díaz and violinist Barry Shiffman in a program of Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky 5 p.m. Sunday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391

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