In the realm of chamber music, Beethoven’s 16 string quartets stand as a defining moment of the genre. And any string quartet that plays the standard repertory aspires to leave a record of the complete Beethoven set as a key portion of its legacy.
The esteemed Takács Quartet finished recording all 16 Beethoven string quartets for Decca some 10 years ago, a set that drew high critical praise, and continues to perform this core repertory whenever their presenters give them a chance. For their Friday (December 9) concert at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium for the La Jolla Music Society, the Takács Quartet offered an exhilarating account of three Beethven string quartets, one from each of the master’s developmental periods.
The quartet’s fresh, vibrant ensemble, immaculate balance, and beautifully matching timbres place this ensemble in the elite circle of chamber music performers. Projecting a visceral sense of continual discovery, Takács rescued this music from sounding like hallowed masterpieces that need to be heard solely for their pious edification.
I appreciated the quartet’s sunny, almost jovial approach to the String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5, a work the young Beethoven patterned after Mozart’s String Quartet in A Major, K. 464. The ensemble’s playful exchange of saucy themes easily suggested Mozart’s wit, yet Takács made room for dramatic touches when the score invited them. First violinist Edward Dusinberre’s sweet, slender but surprisingly penetrating sonority easily set the work’s ebullient tone, but violist Geraldine Walther’s mellow lyricism proved an excellent foil in the more cantabile middle movements of Beethoven’s A Major String Quartet.
Beethoven himself gave his String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, the subtitle “Serioso,” but that sobriquet does not limit the emotional breadth of this engaging work. Takács brought out the opening movement’s brio, especially its angular unison passages, and took off with a miraculous agitato finale in the last movement. Cellist András Fejér deftly handled the gentle pizzacato descending motifs in the third movement that act as a kind of ground bass, and his persuasive solos in the opening movement showed that he had ample expressive power when required.
For the E-flat Major String Quartet, Op. 127, Takács chose a deeper, richer sonority to communicate this late Beethoven string quartet’s profundity and probing emotional depth. The composer marked his slow second movement “molto cantabile,” which Takács delivered in spades. Although the composer’s severe loss of hearing in his final years cut him off from easy communication with friends and limited his ability to fully appreciate performances of the new works he nevertheless continued to produce, the Takács Quartet found and eloquently expressed this work’s unquenchable existential optimism.