Beethoven – String Quartet no.13 in B-flat major, op.130
Mozart – String Quintet no.4 in G minor, KV 516
Eduard Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violin)
Geraldine Walther, Louise Williams (viola)
András Fejér (cello)
Two towering masterpieces were given here in fine performances: not, perhaps, performances that in themselves struck me as revelatory in the sense of proposing a new way of considering the work, but performances which seemed, almost unassumingly, to permit those works to speak for themselves. Coming not much more than a couple of hours after having heard Renaud Capuçon in Beethoven, the Takács Quartet seemed less concerned to ravish, to draw one in through beauty of tone, which is not to say that Capuçon was only or even primarily concerned with that. Nevertheless, the difference in approach, or at least in results, could not help but register.
Beethoven’s op.130 Quartet opened with a broad introduction to its first movement, an introduction which nevertheless certainly moved: pretty much Adagio, ma non troppo, then. The Allegro announced itself both in terms of continuity and discontinuity, that dialectic of course being a constant preoccupation in late Beethoven, a riddle for performers and listeners eternally to reckon with. Interaction, indeed contest, between different types of material – including its emotional content and expression – was relished as difficulty; there are no easy answers here. (Having said that, I did wonder whether a little more of the sheer struggle might have been communicated in performance.) Homophonic and contrapuntal textures offered especially prominent contrast. Shards of serenity vied with exultation in music that is every bit as difficult as Schoenberg or Bartók, arguably more so. A mercurial release of pent-up energy characterised the ensuing Presto, discontinuities again disconcerting. The players made clear that the third movement is not to be understood as a conventional ‘slow movement’, whether in tempo or, at least as important, in its provisional, nervous character. Almost, perhaps an intermezzo, it remained too complex for that. A grace that could not paper over the cracks characterised the Alla danza tedesca movement, that inability to conceal rendering it all the more poignant – or at least differently poignant than Mozart. Febrile elegance and fluid elaboration brought us to the very identity of Beethoven’s material and what he accomplishes with it.
An unhurried, unassuming dignity marked out the Cavatina. We knew we were on holy ground, without having to be informed of it; crucially, we were made to listen, to think. It is a platitude, but probably one worth repeating, what a different work this becomes with the Grosse Fuge. Here we heard Beethoven’s ‘other’ finale, in which, to start with at least, he seemed to be returning to, or rather reinventing, Haydn. There was, of course, no lack of rigour, either in work or performance, but the character was quite different (if only because, most recently, I seem to have heard the Grosse Fuge rather than this movement. Again, there were no easy answers; indeed, the necessary struggle, not unlike such struggles one experiences in Birtwistle’s music, to find the guiding thread, penetrated right to the heart of Beethoven’s and our experience.
If anything, I found the Takács players’ tone more suited to Mozart (rather to my surprise, given their long experience in Beethoven, and in any case it is a matter of degree). The first movement began, suggestive of the great G minor Symphony to come, in medias res. Sonata form in Mozart’s hands seemed to reinvent itself, not least in terms of operatic example. Motivic working proved just as crucial to experience and understanding as in Beethoven, but the lyrico-dramatic context was quite different, and so it sounded. Mozart’s noble tragedy unfolded, again, as if being permitted to speak ‘for itself’. The terse, tragic impulse heard in the Minuet seemed even to look forward to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and its scherzo (at least when that movement is placed second). Mozart sang here as if delivering an Orphic lament. The trio seemed less a contrast than a necessary consequence, the ‘relief’ of the major mode notwithstanding. Truer relief came in the slow movement; despite the mutes, this was an intense ‘relief’ worthy of the name, with its own quasi-operatic drama. As throughout, the richness of the inner parts truly told. (How Mozart clearly loved the viola!) The opening Adagio section to the finale was suffused with longing, reminding us just how close Mozart is here, and not just here, to Tristan und Isolde. He was thereby enable to surprise us, however much we expected it, with the major mode. Fragile good spirits had us – just about – believe in a possibility or at the very least variety of reconciliation that would no longer be open to Beethoven.