Saturday, April 01, 2006

Takacs Quartet

Two Quartets in Two Nights
Part 2 Takacs Quartet

I entered Carnegie Music Hall with awe and eagerness because I knew that it would be a night to be remembered. Now in their fourth decades, Takacs Quartet (pronounced like ta-ka-sh) has become a legend, whose name itself can sell out without doubt. From the first note of Mozart to the last sound of Brahms, the performance was, as one music review in the local paper said, edge-of-seat. That’s probably the best I can give as compliment.

The original Takacs Quartet was formed more than 40 years ago by four students in Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. All initial members are Hungarian who shared the common passion about soccer. Actually the quartet was officially formed in the soccer field. The Quartet was still named after the first violinist Gabor Takács-Nagy who left the Quartet for his solo career in 1993 and was substituted by British Edward Dusinberre. The original violist Gábor Ormai died in 1995 then another British musician Roger Tapping took over the job. From then on, the British-Hungarian quartet has formed its own voice and style and made some award-winning recordings, the most famous of which is their Beethoven Complete Quartet Cycle that was finished last year. Their Bartok interpretation is regarded as the best, their playing of Dvorak and Borodin swept over Gramophone and their Beethoven cycle has been lauded ever since it’s released. Actually the only complete Beethoven Quartet cycle I own now is by Takacs.

In 2005, Takacs Quartet made another important personnel change. The violist Tapping left the position and Geralding Walther, the principle of San Francisco Orchestra since 1976 joined the group. She was assistant principle in Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before she went to SFO and still keeps the leave-of-absence of her position in SFO. The reason why Tapping left and how long Geralding is going to stay is unknown so far (I didn’t think it is appropriate to ask such a question since the change of personnel is not long ago). They also signed a contract with Hyperion Records which means probably their Beethoven Cycle is their last set from DECCA.

From the first movement of Mozart, I immediately knew what was missing in the performance by Ying Quartet the day before. If Ying Quartet provided different sampling of treats, Takacs Quartet’s performance is like a gorgeous entrée. More importantly, they have created radiant warmth and luster in a whole while managed to keep individuality at the same time.

Edward, the first violinist, is straightforward and candid. He has the capability to communicate directly from his heart both in music and in conversation. When I asked him why they put Op. 95, which was written much earlier, into Beethoven Late Quartet Set, he answered that they studied Beethoven from a backward perspective and there was more connection, in his point of view, between Op. 95 and the other late quartets. In particular the transition part, the change of mood shared more similarity with the later quartets, he said. If fact part of the booklet in the CDs was written by Edward. His violin has a spectacular expressive voice, pure and noble. In Mozart, he was jubilant and sweet, at Beethoven, he seemed to be in state of ecstasy between explosiveness and soulful calmness. Although I would say luminosity is some kind of word too philosophical to be used for music, the sound he made was close enough to human nature while shed deep thoughts at the same time.

Karoly Schranz, one of the two original members, is gray-haired and serious. He hair style reminds me of Conductor Ozawa. When I asked him after the concert whether they had another big project, he shook his head and said, “No, one Beethoven cycle is enough.” He told me the whole project took about four years from 2001 to 2005. Although seemed to be tired in conversation, he was energetic in the concert. He listened attentively to other members and instilled his overwhelming passion into the fierce tempo of Beethoven. He dominated pizzicato section and thrilled all the audience.

Andras Fejer, the cellist, is amicable and humorous. He has a round face and big forehead. His hair is curved but explosive. The black rimmed pair of glass which he wore in playing gives him a touch of authority, but he possesses a sweet countenance so that even he looked at me calmly I still felt he was smiling. When one of the audience complimented that he was the most amazing cellist he’d ever heard, he smiled and said in a fast pace, “Oh, great, great, great. Keep listening.” Although the quartet has moved to University of Colorado since 1983, his accent still bears his originality highlighted by some unusual punctuation. His signature looks more like some notes than English letters with several extremely long horizontal lines dotted by some symbols. Like his personality, he played the cello with wit and promptness. In the second half which featured Brahm’s only Piano Quintet he sparkled some great intimacy between pianist and cellist. The piano passage was cordially echoed by his restrained downbeat companionship, each time of which won smiles from both.

Geraldine, as a new member, seemed to be less ardent. In some intense fire-burst section when all other male members crouched, bowed, and leaned bodies toward the center, she was sitting straight and made only eye-contact with them. She toured with Tokyo Quartet before and now plays regularly with Takacs. While three male members played in an urgent, lively manner, she looked disengaged sometimes in style. For anyone who has served in an orchestra for more than 20 years, the manner unfortunately has been restrained since individual style is not encouraged among string sections. However with four members in total for a quartet who sit close enough to feel any nuance change in mood transition, body language and facial expression, plainness indicates more or less a sense of lack of eagerness in communication. There is actually a bigger challenge ahead: With two original members into their 60’s, how the quartet will finally settle down is a mystery and only time will tell.

Mozart’s “Dissonance” in “Haydn Quartets” series has a unique slow introduction rich in color. The atmosphere was gradually transitioned from dark to light. A good concert considers the whole program in a big view and tries to unite different works through their own interpretation. That’s how Takacs did in the concert. Although they played the first three movements in a light-hearted and humorous way, they gave a muscular and robust finale for Mozart. It is a healthy and Hayden-style Mozart, even closer to Beethoven’s early quartets as for distinctive rhythmic motives.

Their Beethoven Op. 127, was even beyond my expectation from many times listening of their CDs. After Mozart’s quartet was played which is light not only for volume but also for the harmonious structure, suddenly, instead of four instruments (actually mostly only first violin in Mozart’s case) there seemed to have a whole orchestra in Beethoven. The gigantic chord, played by Takacs at the very beginning was flawless and captivating with marvelous coordination.

Among all the late quartets of Beethoven, Ops 127 is conventional in structure and encompasses lyricism in melodies. In the pre-concert tutorial, when Edward was asked how Beethoven was different from Mozart, he said that Beethoven’s work was about contrast. (I remember Enescu once said Mozart is about gesture and syllabus) He said during their rehearsals of Beethoven they’d learned a lot, but he refused to specify what they had learned in words. I believe that is because of the tremendous scale and depth of Beethoven’s late works. Ops 127 was written in the same period as his last symphony when Beethoven achieved a higher level of freedom to speak for himself. The utterance from his inner world is so complicated that it is quite difficult to finger out what he is saying exactly. Thus my experience of listening and exploration becomes never tiring since every time I hear it I can sense something slightly new. Nevertheless, through his late works, Beethoven expresses his great power which is inherent in music itself. It has nothing to do with full orchestration, transcending motives and quickening tempo, instead it is a feeling of strength, a forceful statement coherent from his personality even in those slow and quiet sections, in particular his late quartets.

Takacs’ uniqueness lied in their live zealous treatment. I’ve heard Emerson’s performance before and didn’t like their interpretation. Their technique is polished and perfect but they give a feeling of cool and detachment, an achievement which can only be lauded to the interpreters but not the composer. In contrast, Takacs played it with blood-burning ardor: they painted Beethoven with different colors from mischievous humor to intense speculation.

Garrick Ohlsson joined the quartet in the second half. In the pre-concert talk, he wore a baggy sweater and a pair of New Balance sneaker, which made strong contrast with other musicians. Garrick gave a splendid performance of Rachmaninoff No.2 piano concerto just one month ago and he is scheduled to come back again for the formidable 3rd piano concerto of Rachmaninoff next season. He told the audience that he got sick and didn’t have too much time to practice. But he said technically Brahms’ Quintet was not demanding and if the pianist had had some collaboration with quartet before it should not be a problem. Unfortunately he missed one important issue as for piano performance. Carnegie Music Hall (tall but short) doesn’t have a good sound stage for piano and more importantly he hadn’t had the chance to practice on it. The piano sounded muddled most of the time although another review called it warm.

After I got my complete Beethoven Quartet cycle CDs signed by three male members, I looked at the photos inside the booklet. There could be no way to find Mr. Tapping to sign for the CDs probably. Even if I could, I may not hear the same voice again. Takacs is beginning to rebuild itself at its climax. The sound maybe reserved well enough for the next generations, but only those who have heard them in person know how exciting it could be in a live concert.

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