7 Aug 2017

Review: Takács Quartet

From Upbeat, 1:20 pm on 7 August 2017

Considered to be chamber music “royalty” the Takács Quartet held court over the weekend in Wellington and Auckland. Elizabeth Kerr was in the crowd to hear the dynamic group perform Haydn, Webern, Dvořák and a quartet by New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie.

Takács Quartet

Takács Quartet Photo: Ellen Appel

The Takács is rightfully acknowledged as one of world’s greatest string quartets. Their ensemble playing is effortless, and they have such rapport that they can take a lot of risks. They are often very flexible with the tempo and the players know just when to back off and let someone else take the lead. And their sound is beautiful and also as varied as the music requires.

What struck me immediately on Friday was how intimate the performance was. I’d moved up to about the third row in the Michael Fowler Centre and, as we heard in that opening movement of the Haydn, the playing was understated and conversational – true chamber music. Haydn is often called “the father of the string quartet”. There were works written for this ensemble of two violins, viola and cello before Haydn - it grew out of the earlier trio sonata - but his string quartet works in the 1750s and beyond were the beginning of the genre we now know. And what he developed was this conversational style; an egalitarian group of four instruments that engage in musical conversation. The Takács Quartet demonstrated this marvelously.

The 2nd movement, Largo, cantabile e mesto, was entrancing, unfolding without haste; the 3rd, a Minuet and Trio had an easy grace and little rhythmic surprises and the Presto Finale showed us Haydn’s wit and humour – and that of the musicians. These players tossed it off with easy virtuosity.     

Easy is a word that comes to mind with respect to the Takács – theirs is gentle, effortless playing, nothing forced or overly dramatic. It’s all about the music.

Next we moved up a couple of hundred years for a work by NZ composer Anthony Ritchie, written in the 1990’s.

There’s a nice story about this piece which might inspire some of the romantics among you. It was commissioned by Morgan Jones as a 60th birthday gift to his wife Pat. It’s a lovely work, with open textures, jaunty melodies and a modal or tonal language. It was apparently inspired by Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake, in the Queenstown area, and the mountainous landscapes around Queenstown. Though Whakatipu also refers to a kaupapa around parents and children learning from each other – and we know that Anthony Ritchie’s father John Ritchie was also a composer – so perhaps there’s another meaning here? The piece also made me wonder if it really is possible to evoke landscape in music; it’s often suggested Douglas Lilburn did this, and we could hear his influence in this work -  and elsewhere composers such as Sibelius as well. Does grand music make us think about grand landscapes?

It’s a coup to have a visiting quartet of this stature play a New Zealand work though the Takács have done it before – on their last visit they played a work by John Psathas. Apparently this time they were sent several possibilities and chose this work, which worked beautifully with the next work on the programme, Webern’s Langsamer Satz.

Langsamer Satz means literally “Slow Movement”. It’s an early work by Webern, written by him in Vienna as a young man finding his voice, heavily influenced by Mahler but beginning his studies with Schoenberg. And he was at this time in love with his cousin Wilhemine, who became his wife. It’s a lovely piece, full of 19th century romanticism, contrapuntal in a Mahlerian manner. It was beautifully and lyrically played and the audience really enjoyed it. The programme notes made a link with the Anthony Ritchie work, both works having been inspired by mountainous landscapes.

Here I’m going to sound a bit like the late Freddie Page, a music critic who often complained about programming by saying “why could we not have had…?” So, why could we not have had a work which much better represents Webern? His Opus 5, Five Movements for String Quartet, from 1909, for instance, which is just as expressive and contrapuntal but written in the spare, atonal style that provoked scandal and prolonged laughter from the conservative Austrian audience at a performance in the early 1920s. Surely with a group like the Takács, no 21st century audience would be deterred? And sometimes it’s good to push people slightly out of their comfort zones.

After the interval the Takács played Dvorak’s 14th String Quartet in A flat major. We sometimes experience Dvorak’s chamber music as foot-stomping romp; this performance, however, was one of great subtlety and sophistication, full of colour and variety. The musicians played the music as if they loved it.  I was very taken by 1st violinist Edward Dusinberre’s demeanour in the second movement which is a lively Scherzo – he visibly relished the music, playing with joyous zest, taking the lead with gorgeous melodic playing and extraordinary bow control, bouncing off the string as needed. Then there was another beautifully unfolding slow movement; the performance was very thoughtful, using the pregnant silences in the music. The Finale summed up what these musicians are all about, effortless virtuosity combined with infinite care about the details. We were treated to a little encore too, more Haydn to take us full circle, stylish playing of the Finale of his Opus 20 No 4.

Takács Quartet
Michael Fowler Centre
August 4

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kerr

Haydn String Quartet in D major
Anthony Ritchie Whakatipua
Webern: Langsamer Satz
Dvorak String Quartet No 14