Review: Takács Quartet revels in Bartók at Music Fest
Special to The Aspen Times
No one seems to be able to play Bartók with quite the ease and confidence of the Takács quartet. It’s easy to attribute that to the Hungarian roots of the quartet, which was founded by four students in Budapest in the 1970s. Two of them, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér, remain with the quartet, based at the University of Colorado in Boulder since 1983.
But it’s more than that. The Bartók quartets, among the pinnacles of 20th-century chamber music, have a special resonance for this group. In the late 1990s, to honor the untimely death of founding violist Gabór Ormai, the Takács recorded a definitive set of all six Bartók quartets that competes for prominence as the gold standard for this music.
Tuesday night’s performances of quartets No. 1, 3 and 5 demonstrated that, if anything, there’s even more magic now in how this current team plays this music. Schranz and Fejér, along with first violin Edward Dusinberre (since 1993) and Geraldine Walther (since 2005), simply dissolved into it, playing with the sort of clarity, subtlety and power that defines what chamber music is all about. It was as if they were writing it on the spot.
Particularly mesmerizing was the compact, thorny and intricate No. 3, some of Bartók’s most challenging music, with its tightly written counterpoint and wisps of melodic fragments intertwining in introverted dissonances. That this group handled every potential roadblock with aplomb was one thing, but what emerged Tuesday went well beyond mere execution into the realm of otherworldly music making. By making it seem so easy, the audience could forget how difficult this music can be, both for the musicians and the listeners, and simply go along for a ride.
The seemingly effortless playing also revealed the Hungarian folk-like heart of these pieces, especially apparent in the finale of No. 1, swirling like a kaleidoscope. The slow fugue-like writing of the first movement, which has often been compared with Beethoven’s Op. 131, served to establish a unanimity of approach, as each entrance by a different player emerged seamlessly from the previous one. The underlying rhythmic pulse, felt almost subconsciously, allowed the music to become expansive without any sense of drag. The sensitively played second movement gained momentum, the tempo shifts happening as if by a single mind, embellishing gestures coming off like glints of sunlight.
In No. 3, woven into a 20th-century version of canons and fugues, strands of wispy music pass from one instrument to another, then to various combinations of instruments, in the blink of an eye. Often this can come off as studied, but with the Takács it just spun out in a long skein. This approach also blurred the boundaries in a single-movement format where the third and fourth sections mirror the first and second. The performance transcended the form to create a remarkable interior world.
In this world, wraithlike strands of melody weave through a fog of sound to emerge as a sort of off-kilter folk dance, and then dissolves into another tight little piece of counterpoint. Nothing seems to last more than a few seconds, but with the Takács it all wove together into a cohesive mix of color and sound.
More dramatic was No. 5. The atmospheric harmonies that infuse the two slow movements created breathing space around the central Scherzo, derived from Bulgarian rhythms in patterns of nine and 10 beats that always seem to be impulsively lurching into the next measure. The opening and closing Allegro movements, which can seem jerky in the hands of others, simply emerged with an astonishing sense of inevitability.
Wednesday night’s special event, a sunny and exuberant happy-fest of Baroque music with Nicholas McGegan, was perfect for segueing into the holiday weekend. The highlights involved a series of terrific soloists. Gil Shaham gamboled like a happy puppy through J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, shaping phrases on the fly with flair. Adele Anthony (Shaham’s wife) and Simone Porter dispatched Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor with the requisite élan. Mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital made his instrument come to life with surprising drama in a concerto attributed to Paisiello.
McGegan conducted all this with his usual buoyancy. Likewise the opening Suite in C Major “Darmstadt” by Telemann and four excerpts from Handel’s Water Music, danced with similar deftness.
Not to miss in the coming days: The tent concerts Friday night and Sunday feature big, crowd-pleasing 20th-century works, and genre-crossing Pink Martini takes the stage for Saturday night special event. But the faculty recitals in Harris Hall Saturday afternoon and Monday evening should not be lost in the shuffle. The programs field especially strong lineups of musicians and rare music—from Elizabethan “ayres” played by the American Brass Quintet to a quartet by the 18th-century composer Bernhard Crusell, a favorite of clarinetists.
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