December 26, 2006 at 12:14 AMTakács Quartet presents definitive Schubert and I become an underground critic-blogger.
Well, given that we all have just been named Person of the Year by TIME magazine for using blogs, MySpace and YouTube to take back the Culture from the oppressive despots of the Mainstream Media, I suppose it's high time I accept the greatness thrust upon me and post my very first (and possibly last) Blog. :)
Anyhoo, among the goodies I found under the Christmas tree last night was a long-awaited copy of the Takács Quartet's new Schubert recording. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that this may be the finest Schubert quartet recording currently available.
There are some recordings that while listening to them, one eventually finds oneself critiquing every line, every dynamic, every turn of phrase. "Of course everyone has their own interpretation, but I would do this SO much better!" one can end up thinking. Then there are the recordings that while listening to them, one is simply unable to imagine any other way the music could be played or anything else the composer could possibly have wanted. This disc falls solidly into the second category.
In the D minor "Death and the Maiden" quartet, the Takács play at white-hot intensity the whole way through, masterfully conveying the terror and madness that pervade this work. The very opening motif, played senza vibrato with a lean, arresting tone, strikes the listener like a thunderbolt. Then immediately to the most furtive and fearful of pianissimos, before the sound takes on a rich, dark, nearly symphonic cast, and from there the first movement drives relentlessly toward its conclusion. Even in the lyrical, major-key second theme the Takács never lose the sense of underlying existential dread.
The second movement, based on one of Schubert's songs, is a funeral march. The Takács take a quicker tempo than I've often heard, but not too fast, just fast enough to keep the tempo from dragging and the intensity from flagging. Here the many colors of the "Takács sound" are on full view. Cellist András Fejer and violist Geraldine Walther provide a rich, deep-hued and sublimely expressive bass, second violinist Károly Schranz pulls a dark, mournful tone from his violin, and first violinist Edward Dusinberre floats over the top with what are perhaps some of the purest and sweetest sounds ever to grace a string quartet. The third and fourth movements are similar tours de force.
For all the D minor's brilliance the real surprise on this disc is the A minor quartet, the "Rosamunde." All too often this piece is treated as somewhat of a trifle, a tuneful little lace tablecloth for a garden party or black-tie reception, and by its usual pairing on record with the D minor it essentially becomes the demure younger sister of the "Maiden."
Not so in the Takács' hands! They wring every last drop of Schubert's brooding melancholy out of the first movement without ever becoming maudlin, and they are as serious as can be without getting ponderous. It is a fine line to tread, and the Takács tread it terrifically. A similar balance is achieved in the second movement, the pastoral so often played as a simple divertissement. Again, like in the second movement of the D minor, they take a brisker tempo than many groups, which helps keep the energy from dissipating. They manage to make it charming and innocent without being sugary or naive. The third movement takes us back into more serious territory, but this Menuetto is more nostalgic than melancholy--images of a poet reflecting on his lost happy youth come to mind. As we expect by now, the Takács' exquisite phrasing and expressive palette bring out all the subtle shades of sadness, nostalgia, memory and happiness contained in this remarkable movement.
In the fourth and final movement the sun comes out for real. The liner notes to the CD claim that "there is perhaps a hint of the gypsy-style in the theme, with its 'Hungarian' grace notes." I must respectfully say that this is a bit of a stretch, but then again if there's anyone who can make something sound "Hungarian" it's the Takács. Nationality notwithstanding, it is a lovely movement, played with wonderful delicacy and lyricism. But in keeping with the rest of the work the air of melancholy, although farther away here than ever before, is always present.
The thing that has always impressed me most about the Takács is their ability to embody so many seeming paradoxes and contradictions. How is it possible to play with such perfect ensemble, and at the same time each retain such remarkably distinctive personal styles? How can they play with such a lean, transparent sound, but at the same time have all the richness and depth of an orchestra?
This is the quartet's first recording with their new violist Geraldine Walther. She is a simply fantastic player, and adds perhaps a deeper, darker tone to the ensemble than her predecessor, the equally excellent Roger Tapping. What is most surprising about this new arrangement is, although they have only been playing together in this configuration for a little over a year, they fit together so perfectly that you would think it was these four who met each other thirty years ago in Budapest.
This is also their first recording with Hyperion Records. The recording quality is first-rate: clear, resonant but crisp, very vivid and present, but not as if microphones had been stuffed into the instruments. The viola and second violin can be heard very distinctly--always a plus with this ensemble! Planned future recordings for Hyperion include quartets by Brahms and Janacek, or so I've heard.
In short: five stars out of four, full marks, A-plus, gold medal, blue ribbon, go buy it!
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