At an unprecedented time in which livestreamed performances have become the norm, the universal desire among many musicians is for live performances to return soon. It seems that The Takács Quartet is no exception. In introducing their second piece for a performance recorded Jan. 15-16, Edward Dusinberre, the first violinist of the Quartet, faced the camera directly to say, “Absence is perhaps the most palpable way in which we all experience loss… Think back to the Amadeus Quartet playing the premiere of this piece (Britten’s String Quartet) but without Britten in the hall. Today, we play for you with no audience in the hall.”
Despite this, one clear benefit of the recorded performance was that the visual cues communicated by The Takács Quartet musicians to one another — arguably the heart and soul of a string quartet — were on full display. This is a privilege often denied to viewers of a live performance in a concert hall, simply because they are seated too far from the stage. The close-ups of the Takács invited the viewer to be a part of the music, and as a result, the performance felt more intimate, organic and alive.
Even without the help of close-up shots, however, one of the greatest strengths of the Takács has always been their ability to both breathe life into the music and bestow it with a character that is both refreshing in its interpretation yet true to the composer’s vision. This performance was no exception.
Their interpretation of the Haydn String Quartet No. 66 in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1 was both playful and humorous, while key changes to minor brought forth a more rhythmic and powerful character. The cellist András Fejér and violist Richard O’Neill, a 2020 addition to the Quartet, elevated the first movement with a deep, resonant sound. The highlights of “Adagio,” the second movement, were Fejér’s delicate, mellifluous notes followed by O’Neill’s rich, sonorous playing and the conversation between the two. Subsequently, the spirited dance of “Menuetto” was captured masterfully by the Quartet’s joyous energy.
The most gripping part of the movement by far was the abrupt change in character to a far more rhythmic, heavy, minor theme. Before the audience was able to fully adjust to this theme, the Quartet playfully slipped back into the same exuberant dance that began the movement. The Finale was explosive and tightly coordinated, ending on a triumphant note that rang and lingered throughout the concert hall.
The second piece of the night, Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 in G major, Op. 94, was characterized by haunting harmonics juxtaposed by rhythmic pizzicato, serving as a stark contrast to Haydn’s String Quartet of the same key. The first movement “Duets” started with O’Neill and second violinist Harumi Rhodes setting an uneasy mood for the rest of the piece, seemingly in a brilliantly calculated refusal to hear each other, while masterfully building and sustaining the tension. This tension is maintained throughout the piece yet is never quite resolved in the last movement in a startlingly refreshing reflection of reality.
Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67 offered a resolution to the unresolved tension of Britten’s String Quartet. The dynamic, vibrant first movement was playful with collective pauses that mimic breathing. Unlike the unbridled joy in Haydn’s Quartet, however, Brahms’ felt more nuanced, with the Quartet slipping in and out of more melancholic themes. This was followed by an emotional second movement, characterized by a rich warmth that was set by Fejér, Rhodes and O’Neill, while the intense conversation between Dusinberre and Rhodes, in which Rhodes echoed the former, flowed in a river-like serenity.
O’Neill expressively brought out the somewhat haunting melody of the third movement — quite unusual for a Quartet piece to have a viola carry the melody — against the rhythmic backdrop of the ensemble. The piece concluded with a variation of the first movement but with more grace, as well as a beautiful duet between Dusinberre and Fejér followed by an exquisitely unsettling theme in minor led by the latter.
Dusinberre concluded his introduction to the Britten String Quartet with, “But it seems to me and to all of us that this music offers an extraordinary consolation during these difficult times. A way to connect over distance.” The Takács Quartet provided just that: music that provided solace and allowed the audience to take part in an unexpectedly intimate concert experience.
This performance was streamed by Cal Performances Feb. 25 and will be available on demand through April 28.