Takacs Quartet interviewed by Shirley Apthorp – part 2

Dunsinberre’s first major task as a member of the Takacs Quartet was to learn the Bartok quartets.

“I’d been practising the Bartok quartets on my own and they’d seemed a bit scary, a bit abstract,” he recalls. “The main thing I was aware of was not to do with a particular type of school or anything like that. It was just an approach to the music which involved a lot of warmth and humour. That was the real change for me.”

While Dunsinberre’s view of Bartok’s music was being shaped by the Takacs Quartet’s approach, the ensemble’s understanding of the quartets was also evolving. The most significant development came through their collaboration with Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikas. By developing a joint programme around the music of Bartok and Hungarian folk music, the quartet was able to re-unite Bartok’s folk-inspired work with its source.

“Bartok listened to the same peasants that these Muzsikas guys listened to and lived with decades ago,” explains Fejer. “It’s as authentic a source as it comes. It’s like finding a manuscript about the way Noah bought the two-by-fours for his Ark. It’s wonderful!”

The collaboration, which electrified both fellow musicians and musicologists, gave the Takacs musicians insights into both specifics and stylistic details of the works which Bartok created from the sounds he heard when travelling the Hungarian countryside.

When the Takacs Quartet and Muzsikas perform together, the concerts centre on Bartok’s fourth string quartet and his Rumanian Dances.

“It’s a kind of dialogue, because you see the type of folk music that Bartok heard, and then you hear what he did with it,” Dunsinberre says. “They improvise between the movements and show some of the colours in the instruments that inspired Bartok. I think working with them has made our playing more dance-like and physical. It has helped us bring out the sense of adventure and risk in Bartok’s music.”

Playing an entire cycle of Bartok’s quartets, as they will at Musica Viva’s Festival in Australia, is something that Takacs quartet has done often, but find consistently fascinating.

The audience, says Dunsinberre, gets a powerful sense of Bartok’s evolution between the first and the sixth string quartet.

“In the first quartet there’s an undigested folk-song called ‘The White Peacock.’ It’s right in the middle of the last movement, boom, just like that. Then by the time you get to the fourth or fifth quartet you are not hearing the particular folk songs, you’re just hearing that he’s evolved his own completely original language which is inspired by these folk-songs, but they’ve become totally integrated with the music.

“You get more of a sense of a journey than you would in a mixed programme. By the time you get to the end of the second evening and Gerry starts playing the incredibly beautiful, sad solo that she has at the beginning of the sixth quartet, it has become something very powerful. You see what happened in his life up to that point, and the outpouring of sorrow at the end makes sense.”

“It’s a mirror of his life,” adds Walther. “It’s autobiographical, and it’s about what it was to be displaced at that time as a Hungarian.

“Every time I walk down 57th Street in New York, I look up at that non-descript red apartment building where Bartok ended up hungry and sick, just across from Carnegie Hall. And then he wrote this music, just pouring out.”

Listening to the musicians of the Takacs Quartet talk about Bartok, it becomes easier to understand how they can overcome illness and exhaustion in foreign countries in order to do what they do.

But it’s not all travel and stress. The quartet’s posts at the University of Colorado give them a peaceful place with a welcoming community as a counterweight to the constantly-changing landscapes of travel. It also gives them the satisfaction of passing on their skills to the next generation.

“You put ideas to the students and watch their eyes – are they getting it or not? And you keep explaining until they do. I love that process,” says Fejer.

It’s a pleasure they look forward to as part of their 2011 Australian trip, where their responsibilities will include teaching at the AYO chamber music camp as well as performing at the Musica Viva Festival.

“For students today, there’s such an emphasis on playing totally in tune and together all the time,” says Dunsinberre. “It’s a bit scary, and it’s so much not what audiences go to quartet concerts to hear! So when we work in a camp like this, we try to do a bit of brain-washing. And the students are very responsive to that, because it’s not much fun if they spend the whole time just worrying.”

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