Arts & Events

Updated: Takács Quartet Plays Beethoven and Mozart

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday December 14, 2014 - 03:34:00 PM

On Sunday, December 7, I attended a concert at Zellerbach Hall by the Takács Quartet, a Hungarian-English-American string quartet. This concert was mistakenly listed in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle as taking place in Zellerbach Playhouse, which struck me as an appropriately intimate venue for a concert of chamber music t. However, when Cal Performances Press Information office confirmed my request for a press ticket, they informed me that this event would take place in Zellerbach Hall. This was my first disappointment with this concert. 

My second disappointment came when I asked for my ticket at Will Call. There was nothing set aside in my name. I assured the box office people I had received email confirmation from Rusty Barnes that a press ticket would be held for me at Will Call. They eventually came up with a ticket, and I went to my seat, only to find that I was seated far back at the rear of cavernous Zellerbach Hall. This was my third disappointment. Not wanting to make a fuss, I decided to remain in my ticketed seat. This was a mistake 

My fourth disappointment came when, checking the program, I found that the Takács Quartet would not be playing the original finale to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, the Grosse Fugue, but would play the more conventional finale Beethoven later wrote at the urging of publishers. My fifth dis-appointment came as soon as the Takács Quartet began playing, for I noted with consternation that from where I was sitting the overall sound was thin and the timbre of the first violin seemed dry. Moreover, the playing of the Takács Quartet in the first movement seemed to me too fluid, too tame, lacking in rhythmic bite, and lacking as well any hint of the tragic element that underlies this work. Only the brief Presto movement pleased me with its lively scherzo treatment, but this tended to weight the emotional pitch of this work on the light and affirmative side rather than on the darker side. Likewise, the Andante movement, followed by the buoyant Danza tedesca, weighted the emotions still further on the bright side. In fact, only the somber Cavatina movement evoked the sadness underlying this work.  

Karl Holz reported that Beethoven “wrote the Cavatina (‘short aria’) amid sorrow and tears; never did his music breathe so heartfelt an inspiration, and even the memory of this movement brought tears to his eyes.” However, with only this Cavatina movement weighing in on the dark side, it struck me as no wonder the Takács Quartet chose not to play Beethoven’s original finale, the Grosse Fugue. The all too lighthearted way the Takács Quartet played the earlier movements would simply not support anything as tragic and demanding as the Grosse Fugue. So they settled for the more modest, affirmative Allegro finale. I found myself disappointed with the Takács Quartet’s playing of this quartet, which is one of my favorites. 

At intermission, I abandoned my ticketed seat at the rear of Zellerbach and found an empty seat in the third row front and center. As soon as the Takács Quartet began playing Mozart’s Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello in G-minor, K. 516, I realized with a sigh of relief how much better was the sound. The first violin of Edward Dusinberre no longer seemed dry but rich and full, and guest violist Erica Eckert’s timbre was darkly burnished. Second violinist Károly Schranz, cellist András Fejér, and violist Geraldine Walther all sounded great from my new seat up close. 

Mozart’s G-minor Quintet, written in 1787, begins with an unsettling main theme of broken phrases, sighing chromaticisms, and the violins playing unsupported by a bass foundation. Then the darker instruments develop the theme in chromatic modifications before a second subject, a sad, plaintive theme, is introduced; and the movement maintains its disturbingly overwrought demeanor to the end. The second movement, a menuetto, has been called the least dancelike of minuets, for it proceeds with dramatic bursts from all five musicians in unison, violent changes of dynamics, a halting rhythmic motion, and a generally grim ex-pression. The third movement, marked Adagio ma non troppo, opens with ensemble playing, then offers the violin and cello trading phrases in a poignant statement of the opening theme in this most deeply expressive of Mozart’s slow movements.  

The fourth and final movement begins with a mournful Adagio cavatina by the first violin but soon gives way to a lively, affirmative Rondo in G-major, marked Allegro, which features pizzicato plucking by the cello. This Rondo, which some critics have deemed too trivial after the gloom of the earlier movements, has always seemed to me truly expressive of Mozart’s ability to transcend the darker side of life and find hope after the torment and struggle. Thus I found myself as utterly pleased with the interpretation of the Takács Quartet plus violist Erica Eckert in this Mozart Quintet in G-minor, as I was earlier thoroughly displeased with the Takács Quartet’s interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major.