Takacs Quartet’s Bartok Cycle reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald

Takacs Quartet reviewed by Harriet Cunningham
May 4, 2011, Sydney Morning Herald

AFTER an intense performance of the first quartet by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Edward Dusinberre, first violin of the distinguished Takacs Quartet, addresses the audience: ”Thank you for choosing Bartok over the royal wedding.”

He got a laugh, but one suspects that for the packed audience in the Verbrugghen Hall it was no contest. After all, the Takacs Quartet is chamber music royalty, and hearing all of Bartok’s six string quartets is a nigh-on once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Takacs Quartet wears the music of Bartok like an old but beautifully tailored coat. The quartet’s playing is rarely flashy, sometimes frayed, but with an all-pervasive sense of character. It just fits.

Bartok’s first string quartet (Sz. 40) is full of wisps of almost Schubertian romance, determined stillness and skittish counterpoint. The quartet delivered a fluid, idiomatic interpretation: sombre but not morose, playful but not flippant. It set the tone for the cycle: a deeply considered, unapologetically serious engagement with this remarkable body of work.

In String Quartet No. 3 (Sz. 85) Bartok pushes towards the extremes of string sound. The Takacs flipped between harsh double stops and gentle strums with efficient ease, allowing the dense argument to play out with breathless intensity.

The String Quartet No. 5 (Sz. 102) was a spectacular conclusion to the first concert, with the performers mapping out the grand architecture of this work with satisfying clarity.

The second concert comprised String Quartets numbers 2, 4 and 6. String Quartet No. 4 (Sz. 91) was another Takacs tour de force of extended techniques and nimble mood swings. It lurched thrillingly from tough, rhythmic blocks of sound to ethereal scurryings to the central calm of Bartok’s so-called night music.

The Sixth Quartet (Sz. 114) gave insights not only into the inner world of Bartok but also into the individual characters of the Takacs Quartet, opening with a melody of majestic sadness from the cellist Andras Fejer, to be shared around the quartet by its moving close. The second violin Karoly Schranz obviously relished his quartertone duet with Dusinberre, and the violist Geraldine Walther was an eloquent and truly equal partner.

The Bartok cycle was part of a weekend of concerts presented by Musica Viva, which has proved its thesis that a serious music festival does not need a charming rural location to lure a crowd. Its canny collaboration with the ABC, the Conservatorium of Music and the Australian Youth Orchestra was a perfect meeting of minds and talents. I look forward to more of the delights of its city festival.

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