Takacs and Beethoven at CU

| Nov 8, 2009

I have been attending the Takacs Quartet’s programs in Boulder for at least twenty years. Their all-Beethoven concert at CU on Nov. 1st was jaw-dropping in its excellence and restorative in its humanity.

They are embarking on a Beethoven cycle at the Southbank Centre in London this year. I suppose that even for an ensemble as well regarded as the Takacs, box office matters and, in these times, nothing is better box office than Beethoven.

Members of the Takacs Quartet (Photo by Ellen Appel)

Members of the Takacs Quartet
(Photo by Ellen Appel)

My only complaint with their long tenure in Boulder has been the conservative nature of their programming. While they may play Shostakovitch elsewhere, we never hear it here. Nor do they play Schoenberg, Webern, not to mention any of the Carter quartets, works which place him up there with the masters of the form. Indeed, given the Takacs Hungarian roots, one would expect them to program Kurtag, whose exquisite miniatures could be easily included without taking up much space.

The program on November 1st consisted on the Op. 18, No. 1, the Op. 95 and the Op. 131.

The Opus 18 quartets are a little problematic. There is an unhappy tension between the formal, symmetrical elements, e.g., the sonata expositions, and the development sections which are too big and intense in comparison. Balance is sought by repetition, which makes the works seem static. Beethoven didn’t work out this technique until the Eroica.

The Op 95 is from the fallow period when Beethoven was obsessed with his nephew. It is seems somehow troubled and a little unsure of itself. And therefore charming.

Op. 131, we are told, was Beethoven’s favorite quartet. It is, Maynard Solomon says:

in seven movements to be performed virtually without pause…A contunity of rythmic design adds to the feeling that this is one of the most completely integrated of Beethoven’s works. But there are many presures toward discoutinuity at work…six distince main keys, thirty-one changes of tempo (ten more than Op. 130), a variety of textures, and a diversity of forms within the movements — fugue, suite, recitative, variation, scherzo, aria and sonata form — which makes the achievement of unity all the more miraculous.” Maynard Solomon, Beethoven

The notions that the late quartets were the work of someone who had turned his back on the world, of some sort of renunciate mystic who didn’t care about his audience, that the works are rebarbative and obscure are nonsense. All five have brilliant endings. The writing for each instrument is generous in its opportunity for virtuoso display. Nor is it the case that they were not performed during Beethoven’s lifetime (regardless of what the program notes say). Solomon again:

There were private performances of the quartets in 1826 and 1827. And we know that Schubert was given a private reading of the Quartet, Op. 131 in November 1828, five days before Schubert’s death. (”He fell into such a state of excitement and enthusiasm,” Holz reported, “that we were all frightened for him.”)

Performances of works that as thoughtful and sober a musicologist and critic as Maynard Solomon would describe as “miraculous” almost always disappoint — like Marcel seeing Berma, the reality is never as good as the expectation.

In this case the Takacs was up to the challenges – mental, physical and emotional, with a performance of extraordinary bravery, refinement, nuance, color and power. Everything was in place, accurate and precise yet felt completely spontaneous, as though the music were coming into existence for the first time.

Almost two hundred yeas later, we can understand exactly how Schubert reacted. Revolutionary art, and late Beethoven is the eternal avant guard, is always new. At least in the hands of the extraordinary members of the Takacs Quartet.

(NOTE: This review also appeared on Martin Fritter’s blog, Piano Bar.)


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