Queen Elizabeth Hall
String Quartet no.7 in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’
String Quartet no.13 in B-flat major, op.130, with Grosse Fuge, op.133
Edward Dusinberre, Lina Bahn (violins)
Geraldine Walther (viola)
András Fejér (violoncello)
This was the final concert in the Takács Quartet’s survey of the complete Beethoven quartets at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, itself part of the Southbank Centre’s Cycles of Beethoven series, from which I heard Daniel Barenboim’s presentation with the Staatskapelle Berlin of all five piano concertos (see reviews for January and February). Alas, this was the only of the Takács concerts I attended: on this evidence, I wish I had heard all of the performances. The players certainly went out in style, with the first Razumovsky quartet and op.130, replete with Grosse Fuge. (They had given the same quartet with the alternative finale in the first concert, back in November.) Despite the temporary loss of second violinist, Karoly Schranz, to rotator cuff surgery – he is due back on the platform in September – members of the quartet, welcoming Lina Bahn to the fold, seemed utterly at home with each other, individually and corporately.
There was an apt sense of new possibilities to the first Razumovsky quartet. Beethoven’s middle period only seems less extraordinary than his late period because so many of the works are so apparently familiar. What one needs to do is listen to be jolted out of complacency. The Takács Quartet ensured that listen is what we did, drawing us in with storytellers’ wit and sheer joy in the composer’s ingenuity, here every bit the equal of Haydn’s. Counterpoint was not only clear but meaningful, propelling us through Beethoven’s tonal plan and, especially during the first movement, relishing tonal ambiguities and their emphatic resolution. Such an approach was a hallmark of the entire performance, for instance during the strange opening of the second movement, those celebrated repeated notes pregnant with possibility. ‘Which way will Beethoven turn?’ one asked, even though, as a consequence of that ‘apparent’ familiarity, one thought one already ‘knew’ the answer. Underlying all exploration and resolution was the absolute security of cellist András Fejér’s cello bass line: not just secure but decisive – and not just decisive but subtle of inflection.
The Adagio molto e mesto was mesto (sad) indeed, but never maudlin. Players who think that maintenance of momentum involves faster tempo should listen to this: not that it felt especially slow; it simply felt ‘right’, like any well-chosen tempo. Nor was there any of the short-breathed phrasing that passes for Beethoven performance today; that naturalness of unfolding, concealing a great deal of art, was present throughout. One often thinks of the ‘finale problem’ with respect to Beethoven; in many respects, it is a problem of our own devising. Just because greater weight was ascribed to open movements, it does not necessarily follow that Beethoven encountered difficulty in balance and conclusion. A huge amount of nonsense is spoken about the Eroica finale in this respect. Listen to a good performance – easier said than done, I admit – and the ‘problem’ disappears, ‘surmounted’ in triumph. This quartet’s finale is less triumphant, but again there is no problem. The players successfully navigated between apparent ‘lightness’ of mood, born of the Russian theme, and the requisite weight and purpose demanded by Beethoven’s goal-oriented trajectory. Nothing drew attention to itself; there was no need to do so.
With one important exception – to which I shall come shortly – the players equally had the measure of op.130. The first two movement, and not only these, impressed with the sense of dislocation, fragmentation, and eventual piecing together. Quite rightly, this entailed effort on the listener’s part – how could it be otherwise? – but such effort would be in vain, were one not in capable performing hands. The variety of touch, sonority, vibrato, indeed of anything on which the quartet could legitimately draw: all this contributed to a fine exploration of what Beethoven offers, suggests, and eventually demands. First violinist Edward Dusinberre’s tonal gradation was an especial joy in the Andante con moto, ma non troppo – itself a further example of the players’ gift for making tempo choices sound right. As with all the best games, the sense of play in the Alla danza tedesca served to heighten the understanding that something important was unfolding – but only at the end might one begin to piece together what it had been and what it would be.
However, the Cavatina emerged a little plain-spoken, and this brings me to my only real reservation concerning the performance. Beethoven’s sublime simplicity is an extraordinary difficult thing to bring off – especially so in our distinctly unheroic, non-transcendental age. The song was beautiful, but I missed that crucial sense of transcendence. Delight in the composer’s ingenuity takes us along away, but that particular sense of vouchsafing divinity was not to be experienced; such would perhaps have been a greater fault in a performance of the symphonies or piano sonatas, but it registered nevertheless. There was, however, much compensation to be had in a truly coruscating performance of the Grosse Fuge, all niceties flung aside, Beethoven’s endlessly striving radicalism thrust firmly centre stage. I was taken aback – and positively so – by the refusal to prettify or beautify, by the sheer violence of the Takács Quartet’s response. And the central section here did achieve that transcendence I had missed earlier. This truly is music that threatens to make even Bartók sound conventional.