Thursday, 21 February 2013

Takács Quartet/Power - Brahms and Haydn, 20 February 2013

Wigmore Hall

Brahms – String Quartet no.2 in A minor, op.51 no.2
Haydn – String Quartet in B-flat major, op.76 no.4, ‘Sunrise’
Brahms – String Quintet in G major, op.111

Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins)
Geraldine Walther (viola)
András Fejér (cello)
Lawrence Power (viola)
The Takács Quartet, Wigmore Hall Associate Artists, is this week offering two concerts in which a Brahms quartet and a Haydn quartet are presented with a Brahms quintet. Friday’s concert will bring Brahms’s op.51 no.1, Haydn’s op.76 no.5, and Brahms’s Piano Quintet (with Charles Owen). This concert had the second of Brahms’s quartets, Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, op.76 no.4, and the G major Quintet, for which the Takács players were joined by violist Lawrence Power.

Brahms’s A minor Quartet opened in cultivated fashion, the players offering a flexibility that would pervade the performance as a whole. This was not the most richly Romantic Brahms, and there was perhaps a degree of loss in that, but there were gains too. Certainly that unexaggerated flexibility of tempo in the first movement and beyond seemed consonant in the best, that is un-slavish, sense with what we know of Brahms’s own performing practice in his music. A fine balance was upheld and explored between themes, motifs, and fragments – at times, almost Webern-like – and the longer line, the overall cumulative effect very much that of the ‘developing variation’ Schoenberg discerned in Brahms’s music and his own. Form was properly dynamic in conception and execution. The second movement was again very well-judged, part-way between Schumannesque intermezzo and something ‘later’ – always a concern in Brahms. ‘Dramatic’ outbursts made their point, yet were seamlessly integrated into a greater whole. There was melancholy, to be sure, but not, as in Nietzsche’s cruel jibe, ‘melancholy of impotence’, likewise in the third movement, its opening dramatically pregnant, its later counterpoint handled lightly yet without being underestimated. Counterpoint was afforded greater weight in the finale, in a reading of increasing cumulative power, which, tensions beneath the surface notwithstanding, yet retained a certain Viennese elegance.

Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet sounded from its opening bars, as it should, as though Haydn were very much part of the same tradition as Brahms and yet in a sense more ‘timely’, less ‘late’, in his exploratory Classicism. The first movement showed admirable display for Haydn’s concision and spirit; if I have heard more extrovert performances, this nevertheless could not help but make me smile. Every note counted, as it must. Interplay between slow opening material – the apparent ‘introduction’ that is actually the beginning of the exposition proper – and what follows proved almost operatic, Mozart not so distant. The slow movement was heard as if in one, immensely variegated, breath, a model of intelligent and inviting Haydn playing. Infectious Schwung characterised the minuet, though its reprise suffered somewhat from imperfect intonation; the trio offered a delightful sense of partially deconstructed rusticity. There was again a Mozartian – well, almost Mozartian – poise to the final movement, but the rigour to the working out was unmistakeably Haydn’s own, as were the surprises.

Tuning was, rather to my surprise, a little wayward from the cellist in the opening of Brahms’s G major String Quintet; that had been rectified the second time around. The performance as a whole did not quite seem to hit its stride until the second subject, the opening material sounding slightly forced in its projection. It was a joy throughout, though, to hear that extra richness afforded by the addition of Power’s viola; if ever a composer were likely to benefit from such an opportunity, it was surely Brahms. The flexibility of the opening quartet was once again very much in evidence, especially dring the development and recapitulation. What one might call ‘detailed intensity’ came to the fore in the second movement, which nevertheless retained a sense of overall simplicity, however deceptive, almost akin to a superior ‘song without words’. The febrile quality to the third movement seemed just right: unstable and yet ultimately fulfilling, redolent once again of the worlds of Schoenberg and Webern. However much he might try, Brahms at his ‘late’ juncture cannot recapture Haydn’s unbounded joy. High, if mediated, spirits registered all the same in the finale.

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