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Takács String Quartet reimagines the conventional in virtuosic performance

<h6>Amanda Tipton / takacsquartet.com</h6>
Amanda Tipton / takacsquartet.com

In a Q&A held immediately after their Oct. 15 concert, the Takács Quartet emphasized the importance of demystifying the classical music industry, particularly in the often esoteric and unreachable depths of the diverse, yet relatively untapped, string quartet repertoire. Second violinist Harumi Rhodes said that one of the Takács’ newly reignited missions in the depths of the pandemic is “trying to reconnect with the inclusive parts of music-making.” Indeed, they succeeded in this mission, breaking countless long-held rules in the process — to great effect — and potentially setting a new precedent for online music performance that may very well persist after the pandemic has subsided.

The Takács’ concert, hosted by Marna Seltzer, was the opening night of Princeton University Concerts’ 2020–21 season, and they brought to their virtual evening a program of works by Mozart, Coleridge-Taylor, Bartók, and Debussy. Seltzer hit the nail right on the head in mentioning the “tinge of disbelief” pervading concerts like these. Truthfully, there’s considerable disbelief to be suspended in any virtual concert, although I appreciated their choice to film together in a concert hall; I felt far more immersed in the visual and auditory aspects of the performance as a whole.

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Touching on the topic of immersion, the Takács’ members — violinists Edward Dusinberre and Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér — chose to program just small excerpts from a wide range of pieces written for the string quartet. From the abruptness of the first movement of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 15 (K. 421/417b) to the unbridled, colorful vitality of the Andantino and Très modéré of Debussy’s String Quartet (L 91, Op. 10), they explored the repertoire in a setting short-form enough to keep the attention of a digital audience.

What stands out at once about the Takács Quartet on the whole is its unflagging, astounding attention to detail. Particularly in the Mozart, I was impressed by the quartet’s ability to bring out flowing lines, both within and between different parts, without compromising Mozart’s legendary contrapuntal writing. The result, as the emphasis passed first from Dusinberre to Rhodes and then from Rhodes to O’Neill, before finally settling on Fejér’s resolution, was a unique musical choreography throughout the movement. In a piece that arguably leaves little to the performers’ imagination, the subtlety of the Takács’ cadences lent an interpretative imagination wholly welcome in Mozart’s often temperamental and yet lively composition.

Rhodes introduced the second work, Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestücke for String Quartet (Op. 5), from which the Takács exercepted the Prelude and Humoresque for their performance. In her introduction, she gave much-needed context for her own discovery of the piece earlier this year — a piece of incredible depth, characterized by a great number of parallel chords and solo melodies over drone tones. During the Prelude, Dusinberre took on the brunt of those melodies with great aplomb, his rich tone carrying over the pillowy soundscape created by the rest of the quartet.

Perhaps it’s just the way in which the performance was recorded, but I find that — even at its most biting or virtuosic — the Takács Quartet has a deep, burnished sound throughout that sets it far and away from its peers. The sense of polish is almost off-putting at certain times, when it seems almost too perfect to capture the true emotional anguish of some of these works. Nonetheless, the result is an incredibly distinctive auditory experience, particularly in the Coleridge-Taylor, where they provided an apposite sense of well-rehearsed mastery throughout the deceptively difficult Humoresque.

While introducing the Coleridge-Taylor and the Takács’ process of discovery, Rhodes mentioned the classical music world’s incredibly lukewarm reception of Black composers throughout history, describing her “shame for not knowing [the Fantasiestücke] before.” I think she brings up a significant question: is it the responsibility of the performer to seek out the lesser-known works of an instrument’s repertoire and bring them to life? At face value, it’s not a difficult question to answer; the focus of concert programming as little as a year ago wasn’t necessarily bringing audiences’ attention to works that were underperformed or composers that were underrepresented, but rather bringing new life and new interpretations to the masterworks by the so-called “greats” of classical music.

Over the past few months, though, I think the community has come to a long-overdue realization: pieces will never enter the zeitgeist of masterworks if performers don’t take it upon themselves to share them with the general public. Just as with Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Sonata, there exists a startlingly limited variety of recordings, on Youtube or otherwise, for the Fantasiestücke. It goes without saying, then, that what the Takács and other artists are doing has the potential to change the canon, both for good and for the better.

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With little rest, the Takács jumped directly into the second half of the program: the Introduzione and Allegro vivace from Bartók’s String Quartet in A minor (Op. 7, No. 1), immediately followed by the Debussy. I really loved Fejér’s quick but reasoned analysis prefacing the Bartók, in which he discussed the chordal motifs present throughout Bartók’s writing; as Bartók was one of the 20th century’s most diversely and complexly influenced composers, it’s difficult to fully understand his works through a purely Western framework of listening. Hearing the Takács’ performance of the Bartók felt like experiencing them at their absolute best; after a shocking, abrupt, and Prokofiev-esque opening, Fejér’s opening lament was very impressive, with each gradually more-agitated bar melting into the next. When Dusinberre took up the solo, it was with a bright and vibrant, yet also sustained, tone that carried throughout the hall, perfectly unrushed, and yet pulsating with an instantaneous energy.

Speaking overall, Bartók certainly provides a much more diverse tonal color and palette for the modern performer than, for example, the Mozart, and the Takács Quartet, with its diverse musical experiences, feels uniquely suited to perform his works. In a strange way, I almost felt like the Takács’ performance of this work was the closest one can get to “musical perfection” as a tangible concept. I say this because everything adheres to the technical notion of conceptual perfection; every note is audible, everything is executed to an impossibly high standard of technical accuracy, and yet they also bring to the table an ineffable understanding of their works from different angles. The violin unisons close to the end were musically sublime, all instruments blending tones together in golden walls of sound, and they set up the listener for the euphoric conclusion.

The opening of the Debussy’s third movement was the first time in this concert that the listener really got to experience O’Neill as a soloist in his own right, and just on merit of a single phrase, he is simply incredible. He made the response of the viola quick, sharp, and yet rounded, cutting gracefully through the otherwise-heavy, con sordino colors of the accompaniment. There were some interesting stylistic touches here that actually went rather against the grain of what listeners might be accustomed to when listening to the Debussy. In her opening line, Rhodes took an unprecedented pause between the final G and the half-step up to the A-flat, bringing a not-unwelcome tonal tension to the undulating melodies of the piece that persisted throughout the third movement.

Moreover, the Takács played the third movement at a faster pace than the norm, which resulted in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. Indeed, one could make the case that the reason why Debussy put so much emphasis on the interconnected nature of his chords from bar to bar and note to note was specifically to bring out the diverse tonal and harmonic shifts that arise as a result of faster performance. At the same time, there were instances in which I didn’t feel that such cases were executed as effectively as they could be. The musical climax of the third movement felt jarringly empty, as if the resonances of the instruments weren’t interacting with each other, despite the Takács’ sustained tone throughout.

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To conclude the concert, the Takács performed the fourth movement from the Debussy: a technical bear in every sense of the word, intimidating even veteran players for its cliffhanger modulations and nightmarish intonation, and yet the Quartet did an exceptional job navigating keys from D-flat major to F-sharp major and all sorts of changes in between. It really wasn’t until the ending, towards the concert’s conclusion, that I came to understand how the Takács’ choices in programming managed to show the widest possible breadth of their performing oeuvre: from the separate-yet-flowing lines of the Mozart to the remorselessly coloristic blending of tones, registers, and ranges in the Debussy, there truly seemed to be nothing out of bounds, nothing unexplorable. The closing passages were truly just as I’ve always envisioned them, with absolutely glorious energy — almost as if the final chord were signifying a beginning, rather than a conclusion.

The Takács followed their hour-long concert with a question-and-answer session of similar length, during which they discussed their takes on music-making, the pandemic, and the state of classical music in contemporary society. I found Rhodes’ comments on inclusivity in music performance to be particularly eye-opening, as she considered how the role of music has become more important than ever, as well as the privileges of being able to rehearse and perform in a chamber music setting when so many other groups have been forcibly rent apart by the pandemic. There’s no doubt that she struck a chord with many musicians in discussing how “we feel like we need to gate [classical music] to make it more special by coddling it, by making it almost like a special club ... a beautiful gem that we hold so dear.” Furthermore, what she sees as most important and most compelling — and what many of us have turned to for inspiration in our own creative processes — is music’s “capacity to include ... so many minds, and to make that connection across so many continents.”

There’s no doubt that the Takács’ wide-ranging Q&A had something for everybody, serving as an eye-opening view into how one of the world’s most successful string quartets has acclimated to a rapidly changing scene for music and the arts. Perhaps the most compelling revelation of the night, however, was Rhodes’ perplexing affinity for soups.

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