Arts & Events

New: Takács Quartet Opens A Beethoven Cycle at Hertz Hall

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday October 18, 2016 - 11:18:00 AM

On Saturday-Sunday, October 15-16, the Takács Quartet, now in its 41st year as an ensemble, opened a cycle of Beethoven’s complete string quartets under the aegis of Cal Performances at Hertz Hall. Plaudits to Cal Performances for scheduling these concerts in Hertz Hall and not Zellerbach Hall. One of my most disappointing musical experiences was hearing the Takács Quartet perform Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet in 2014 from a seat two-thirds of the way back in cavernous Zellerbach Hall, where the sound was thin and totally lacking in both warmth and immediacy. In reviewing that regrettable experience, I stated emphatically that chamber music concerts should not be held in Zellerbach Hall. I don’t know, of course, if my insistence on this point, which I restated in subsequent reviews of chamber music concerts held in smaller, more intimate venues, did any good; but it is certainly gratifying to hear the excellent Takács Quartet in the lively and intimate acoustic space of Hertz Hall.  

In scheduling a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, the Takács Quartet will offer six concerts October through April, with each program containing three works, one quartet each from Beethoven’s early years, middle years, and late years. The Saturday, October 15 concert, which I did not attend, featured the Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2; the F minor Quartet, Op. 95, Serioso; and the B-flat Major Quartet, Op. 130. The latter work was performed on Saturday with Beethoven’s second, more accessible finale rather than his more demanding Grosse Fugue, which he originally intended as the conclusion of his Op. 130 Quartet. At the closing concert of their Beethoven quartet cycle on April 9, the Takács Quartet will perform Op. 130 with Die Grosse Fugue as the work’s finale. 

Beethoven, of course, learned much about the expressive possibilities of string quartet writing from his illustrious predecessors, Mozart and Haydn. Yet throughout the early, middle, and late years of his life, Beethoven explored ever new and inventive possibilities for the string quartet. Beethoven’s late quartets have justly been celebrated as seminal works for the future of music, a future we are still witnessing and enjoying today.  

On Sunday, October 16, I attended the concert featuring the Takács Quartet in Beethoven’s F Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1; his E-flat Major Quartet, Op. 74, Harp; and his monumental C-sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131. In the opening work, the centerpiece of the F Major Quartet is the somber Adagio, which Beethoven wrote with the burial vault scene in mind from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This Adagio is anguished in the extreme, yet poignantly beautiful. The Scherzo that follows is bouncy and ingratiating, while the final Allegro offers a dramatic fugue. As performed by the precise, tightly knit Takács Quartet, this product of Beethoven’s early exploration of the string quartet format offered many fore-shadowings of the innovations to come later. 

Next on Sunday’s program was a superb rendition of Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, so-named for the pizzicato notes that are so prominent in this work. The Harp Quartet opens with a soft, brooding passage marked Poco Adagio. In the Allegro section’s frequent pizzicato passages, violist Geraldine Walther, cellist András Fejér, and second violinist Károly Schranz performed brilliantly, as did first violinist Edward Dusinberre. Soon, however, this opening movement takes on a more dissonant, somewhat disturbing character. The ensuing Adagio ma non troppo is somber and a bit wistful. The next movement, a scherzo, featured a robust contribution from András Fejér, the Takács Quartet’s cellist. The concluding movement brought this work to a soft, understated close, here rendered in as superb an interpretation as one could hope for of the beautiful Harp Quartet. 

After intermission the Takács Quartet returned to play the C-sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131. To write about this monumental work is daunting. Its size alone is colossal, consisting of seven movements, or, as some parse it, five movements and two transitional sections; and it is the only one of Beethoven’s string quartets meant to be played without a pause from beginning to end. Op. 131 begins with the first violinist playing the first 12 notes solo. The Takács Quartet’s Edward Dusinberre has written eloquently of all the questions of rhythm, tempo, tone, and lightness versus gravitas that he encounters when deciding how to play these first 12 notes, and of the input he receives from his colleagues regarding these matters. Suffice it to say that in Sunday’s performance at Hertz Hall, Dusinberre seemed to find the perfect combination for opening Op. 131 with a slow, intimate, almost ethereal theme in the style of a fugue. The second section, an Allegro in D Major, offers a slightly swinging yet shadowy theme, followed by a brief transitional passage. The third (or fourth) section offers a kaleidoscopic set of variations. This is the true centerpiece of Op. 131, featuring variations that while becoming ever more complex also become ever more serene. The brilliance of the variations is followed by a bumptious scherzo. Another transitional section then leads into the forceful finale, which begins with four bars centered around the initial notes of the first movement’s fugal material. Thus we find a cyclic structure in Beethoven’s Op. 131 Quartet, with the emphasis on the work’s two outer movements and its brilliant set of variations at the center. All in all, the Takács Quartet gave a magisterial rendition of this colossal work from Beethoven’s last years. 

The Takács Quartet’s next installments in Hertz Hall in their complete Beethoven cycle will be on March 4-5, and the final installments will occur on April 8-9.