Takacs Quartet interviewed by Shirley Apthorp – part 1
A broad canal flows gently behind the hotel where the Takacs Quartet is staying between concerts and workshops in Amsterdam. As a pedestrian, you have to stay alert to avoid being flattened by a passing bike; Amsterdam, as always, is dominated by cyclists.
Just over the canal and up the road is Amsterdam’s venerable 1888 Concertgebouw, described by Bernard Haitink as the best instrument in the orchestra it houses. The previous evening, the Takacs Quartet performed late Beethoven in the building’s chamber music hall.
It has been a gruelling tour for them, with concerts across Europe as well as teaching commitments. While violinist Karoly Schranz is out of action, awaiting rotator cuff surgery, his Colorado colleague Lina Bahn is performing with the quartet. And violist Geraldine Walther is nursing a cough that sounds distressingly acute.
All of them brush off sympathy with vehemence.
“I don’t think about it much,” says Walther. “I’m just glad to be doing this; I feel so lucky.”
Walther hadn’t coughed on stage the previous evening. The excitement and adrenalin of concerts, says cellist Andras Fejer, is generally enough to suppress illness.
“Normally, you’re not trained to push yourself to the limit every night with an ever-shrinking amount of sleep. That accumulates. In the end, your body pays the price; I usually get sick after a tour.”
On the other hand, these things need to be seen in perspective, says first violinist Edward Dunsinberre.
“Let’s face it, we get a lot more positive feedback than most people get in their jobs, and we get it ALL the time. When you get home after a tour, you’re used to getting lots of attention on stage. My family is like, ‘So what? Do something useful!'”
Though they praise Bahn’s remarkably quick adaptation to the ensemble as “nothing short of miraculous”, the players admit to missing Schranz.
“He’s our wild card,” says Walthers.
“He’s not here to defend himself,” cautions Dunsinberre. “But he’s definitely got a great spontaneous quality. Sometimes he’ll just get on a bit of a riff, and you know you’ve got to get on the train, or you’ll be left behind. It’s wonderful, and it keeps the audience on their toes.”
If it feels a little odd to be interviewing a Hungarian string quartet of which only half of the members are Hungarian, the musicians think such details are not important.
“I’m not convinced we sound Hungarian,” says Fejer. “There are four individuals in this group, and there is a sound they feel comfortable with. If it’s convincing, great.”
An English or Swedish ensemble who had studied with the same teachers might have an equal chance of creating the same sound, Fejer adds.
“I think the tradition of being lively, interesting, imaginative and vital is something we all agree upon,” offers Walther, who joined the group most recently, in 2005. She still seems overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity.
“I’d come from a big orchestra, and I’d never thought I’d be in a string quartet. It’s been just wonderful. In an orchestra you’re basically producing someone else’s vision, but with a quartet, you get to make it up yourself. That’s the joy of it.”
When Dunsinberre joined the quartet in 1993, he was the first non-Hungarian member. The ensemble had moved from Budapest to Boulder, Colorado in 1986, taking up a university residency which they still hold, so the task of changing rehearsal language from Hungarian to English did not seem too onerous.
“Ed was reluctant to learn Hungarian,” grins Fejer. “It’s a difficult language with limited returns. So we began to rehearse in English. He was most tolerant of our various grammatical transgressions. We had to be somewhat more civilized in the English language, since we didn’t have the tools that the Hungarian colourful folky expressions allow us.
“But we had the music. Everything else is just a tool to help the music along.”