The auguries were inauspicious: a night-time football game with two home-teams competing, police cars patrolling and police tape lining the accesses to campus, not one but two other concerts on campus (one on East, and one on West), and to top it off, cold weather and drenching rain. But the full house which attended the presentation by the Takács Quartet in the Chamber Arts Society/Duke Performances series enjoyed an evening of string quartet masterpieces played at the very highest level.
The Takács, as you might expect from the name, was formed in Hungary, in 1975, at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, and continues with two of the original members, Károly Schranz, second violin, and András Fejér, cello, now complemented by Edward Dusinberre, first violin and Geraldine Walther, viola. From the first notes of the Quartet, Op. 71, No. 1, of Joseph Haydn, the listener could tell that this is an ensemble which stands apart from the rest. Too often modern strings aim above all at projecting a large sound, irrespective of sound quality, with strident attacks which generate the impression of drama only, and result in a simply vulgar reaching for effect. There was none of that here. Dusinberre and his colleagues produce a smallish sound, but always sweet and beautifully in tune, with delicate inflections. All the details in the familiar Haydn work told, with subtle nuance to the rise and fall of the individual lines, a nice swing to the rhythms, excellent blend and superb ensemble.
The first half was filled-out with the unfamiliar Schumann Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 1, one of a unique set of three quartets in Schumann's production. The first movement showed off the rhythmic subtlety of which the Takács is capable, with transitions beautifully managed. The Scherzo which followed seems to combine Rossinian and Mendelssohnian idioms, and the Adagio sang beautifully, in a very tranquil mode. The finale brought a wonderful moment of pianissimo preparing the rush to the final cadence. All in all, a rendition which lifted the composer's creation to a level above which it might rightly deserve.
The second half brought one of the monuments of the quartet literature, the huge Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1 of Beethoven. Here the capability of the quartet to calibrate finely the interaction of lines flowing from one instrument to the next was well in evidence, as was Dusinberre's mastery of shaping lines at piano dynamic (e.g. a notable upward-trending passage in diminuendo which prepared a sforzando entrance following, and then the recapitulation). The opening movement, despite its size, was perfectly shaped, and the attention of the listener carried along at every moment. I confess that I must agree with the 19th-century detractors who found the latter movements less than successful (Dusinberre described Romberg throwing his part to the ground and stamping on it upon encountering the Scherzo), but there could be no less perfect advocates for this work than the Takács, with every detail considered and in place. They were rewarded with an immediate standing ovation by the cognoscenti at the Reynolds Theater. It was a memorable night of exceptional music-making.