Investec International String Quartet Series: the Winter So Far (Part 2)

The second of this season’s Investec International String Quartet Concerts was the most welcome return of the Takács Quartet to the Royal Pump Rooms on Thursday 16 November, just three years after their first visit. On this trip to Europe, the Quartet gives six concerts in England including two at the Wigmore Hall, before going to Sweden and Denmark.

The Takács Quartet, now entering its forty-third season, is renowned for the vitality of its interpretations. The New York Times recently lauded the ensemble for “revealing the familiar as  unfamiliar, making the most traditional of works feel radical once more”, and the Financial Times described a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall: “Even in the most fiendish repertoire these players show no fear, injecting the music with a heady sense of freedom. At the same time, though, there is an uncompromising attention to detail: neither a note nor a bow-hair is out of place.”

Based in Boulder at the University of Colorado, the Takács Quartet performs eighty concerts a year worldwide. Our concert was almost entirely sold out before the doors even opened and the Royal Pumps were full to bursting with a most eager and appreciative audience!

The programme for this concert is all tied together by Vienna where both the Mozart and Beethoven quartets were written, premièred and published. Mozart had moved to the imperial capital from Salzburg and Beethoven from Bonn; Brahms moved there too from Hamburg and his first two string quartets, Opus 51, were premiered in Vienna in 1873. However his last and third quartet, Opus 67, was published and premièred in Berlin in 1876, having been written quite quickly (for him) that year, unlike his two Opus 51 quartets which had taken him eight years to complete, as he suffered, as with his symphonies, from the long shadow of Beethoven.

Mozart Quartet in D K575

Mozart’s Quartet K575 is the first of the three Prussian quartets, which resulted from a visit to Potsdam and Berlin in 1789. The hope was that the cello-playing Kaiser would commission a range of works from him and indeed offer further performance opportunities. In his final works for string quartet – the Clarinet Quintet dates from 1789 too – the elaborately wrought four part style that he had developed had up to a point to be abandoned and there was a need to emphasise the cello, most easily achieved in the slow movements. In the first movement a brief phrase at the end of the opening theme is taken up again after the appearance of the second theme and is subjected to considerable attention in the development section. The main melody of the slow movement is a variant of Mozart’s famous song Das Veilchen. After the trio, the finale (another Allegretto) has a serene song for the cello accompanied by the viola. The whole movement is characterized by placidity and warmth of feeling.

Beethoven Quartet in B flat Op 18 No 6

Beethoven’s Opus 18 set of quartets were written between 1798 and 1800; dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, the set was published in 1801. In each of the Opus 18 quartets, the first movements are not extensive and tend to be swift, bland even and symmetrical, but one can enjoy in No 6, the grace of the light-footed first subject played by the first violin, followed by a second subject that has a lightness of heart. The scherzo is energized by its effective syncopations. The quartets in the set build up to their finales and Opus 18 No 6 is the most visionary, where a slow, strange-sounding chromatic labyrinth entitled La Malinconia alternates with a swift limpid little dance evocative of the Viennese ballrooms. Beethoven asks for this movement to be played with the greatest delicacy. Edward Dusinberre points out in his book Beethoven for a Later Age, “the recurrences of the slow introductory music of the first movement of Opus 130 are an expansion of an idea already presented many years previously in the last movement of his Quartet Opus 18 No 6, where the mysterious Malincolia introduction refuses to be pushed away by a more cheerful last movement”. The Opus 18 No 6 Quartet has been described as “the most mature and individual of the set” and Beethoven then paused for half a dozen years before returning to the genre when he started the Razumovsky set and moved into his middle period.

Brahms Quartet in B flat Op 67

Brahms’s Opus 67 quartet is the most joyful of his three quartets and it has the nickname of The Hunt. The opening spirited melody sounds like a hunting fanfare and the first movement continues
with continually contrasting rhythms. There follows a graceful song over syncopated chords and then in the scherzo-like third movement, the viola becomes the dominant performer, with the other instruments muted. Brahms turned in the final movement once more to the variation form. The cantabile theme, a simple melody that sounds like a folk tune undergoes eight ingenious
transformations that represent a high point in Brahms’s use of the form. In the last two passages he used the vigorous leaping theme of the first movement contrapuntally thus uniting the
four movements in one intellectual whole.     Richard Phillips, November 2017

If you are interested in further listening, Presto Classical have made the following recommendations:

Recordings of Mozart’s String Quartet in D K575 by the Schumann Quartet (ARS Produktion ARS38156) and the Alban Berg Quartett (Teldec 4509954952) have been well-received. The Amadeus Quartet “play with great polish and fluency” (Penguin Guide) in their complete Mozart recordings for Deutsche Grammophon (4778680). The Takács Quartet’s own outstanding recordings of Beethoven’s String Quartets are available either as separate volumes of Early, Middle and Late Quartets, or in a newly-remastered complete set (Decca 4831317). Beethoven recordings by the Belcea Quartet on Alpha (ALPHA262) and Quartetto Italiano on Decca (4540622)are also generally recommended. The Takács Quartet have also recorded Brahms’s Quartet in B flat Op 67 – twice! Their later recording for Hyperion (CDA67552), released in 2008, was a Gramophone Awards Finalist in the Chamber category in 2009 and well received at the time of release; “their approach is alert, texturally clear and passionate…these are admirable performances which I recommend to any prospective buyer” (BBC Music Magazine). Recordings of Brahms’s quartets by the Artemis (Erato 2564612663), Belcea (Alpha ALPHA248) and Amadeus Quartets (DG 4743582) are also worth exploring.

The Takács Quartet have built up an extensive discography over the last forty-plus years, spanning a wide range of repertoire from Haydn to Shostakovich and beyond. Their latest release on Hyperion (CDA68142) with viola player Lawrence Power is “an entrancing disc” (Gramophone) featuring Dvořák’s Quartet Op 105 and String Quintet Op 97. If you’ve enjoyed this evening’s programme, you might also like to explore the Takács Quartet’s other recordings of Brahms chamber music – the String Quartet No. 2 and Piano Quintet (Hyperion CDA67551) and two String Quintets have all been recorded (Hyperion CDA67900) – or their complete recordings of Beethoven’s String Quartets.

The third concert in the Investec International Quartet Series is on Thursday 30 November at 7.30pm in the Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington – click here for tickets. Alternatively call 01926 334418 to book or visit the Box Office, Leamington Visitor Information Centre, Royal Pump Rooms.