The Takacs Quartet Plays Bartok Quartets

by | Dec 28, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Takacs Quartet Plays Bartok Quartets

BARTOK: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17 (1917); String Quartet No. 3 (1927); String Quartet No. 6 (1939)
Studio: Decca DVD B0007485-09 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: 16:9, Color
Audio: PCM Stereo, Dolby  Digital 5.1 
Length: 92 minutes
Rating: ****

Directed by Mike Newman and shot in high definition at Hatchlands Park, the four members of the Takacs Quartet (1997) find themselves playing their national music-hero Bartok in plush surroundings, a carpeted room with exquisite wall paintings. The Takacs Quartet itself was founded in 1955 by members of the Budapest Academy, and two original members still work in the ensemble. “Our compulsory subjects were chamber music and folk music,” contributes second violinist Karoly Schranz. Each of the three quartets presented has a brief but thorough introduction by the players themselves, commenting on Bartok’s personality, his musical form and expressive means. The finished product is a high-end, intimate exploration of a master whose Magyar contrapuntal idiom still can put at a distance those unused to its especial, emotional demands. As Roger Tapping, the violist, exclaims, “This music can seem distant and dry–it isn’t. We try to humanize this music, some of which is the deepest music I know.”

Who is Bartok? A quiet man, outside; but his interior life was rich, deep, vibrant, full of energies. “This music is meaty, earthy, rich in materials–you physically have to lay into the strings. All of its singing leads to high expressive content,” says Edward Dusinberre, first violin. “We wish to play so the audience understands and enjoys this music–we want to show its emotional variety and richness, even the humor, in Bartok. Some of these pieces make the same impression as Beethoven’s Op. 131 made on an audience which wasn’t ready. The No. 3 has an eerie opening, then extends to contrasting sections and back again–all in one movement.”

The rich sonority and intimacy of the Third Quartet is upon us in the viola part. Hints of Magyar folk music, and then the rhythmic impulses get savage, a la Piano Concerto No. 1. We can feel the music become superheated, the hand positions of the players becoming ever more taxing. Pregnant silences, long slides, nervous darkness. Quartet No. 2 is “immediately sensuous and beautiful, almost French in flavor,” offers Tapping. “We found some correlation with the music of Vaughan Williams in the use of fifths, the pastoral qualities.” Violinist Schranz adds, “The second movement is Arabic , barbaric, dynamically rhythmic; there is melancholy mixed with joy.” Cellist Andras Fejer speaks of the last movement Lento as “beautiful, enclosed, dour–almost like dropping stones into a grave.” The performance is all guts and drive, a foursome of master colorists adding to a heady brew, emotionally convulsive. By the last note of the finale, we are spent.

Dusinberre introduces the Quartet No. 6. “When I joined this ensemble, Bartok wasn’t even in my fingers, much less in my blood. I was lucky to work with musicians who give me a sense of fun–I had seen Bartok as scary, difficult, modern music.” Fejer says of the Sixth Quartet that “it has a new sense of life, new feelings.” Schranz sees that the piece “engages new meters, maybe a response to the industrial buildup of the 1930s – ready for war, so the danger is that we ignore the warmness in the rhythmical, barbaric elements.”  Tapping calls the use of quarter-tones in the music a “sort of burlesque, like someone sticking his tongue at you.” Fejer adds, “Bartok is trying to be maybe phlegmatic about the horrors of the 1930s. The Mesto itself is beautiful; Bartok decided to develop it into a complete movement. He had wanted to end gaily, but he heard news of his mother’s illness and death, so he made an extremely sad, mesto movement.”

Singularly of one mind, this Sixth Quartet has a Baroque uniformity of affect. The pungent, mocking elements only exacerbate the gallows humor that permeates the piece. The last movement places Bartok emotionally alongside Beethoven for sheer profundity of feeling. The camera closes in on the players’ faces as much as on their hands; everything has given over to espessivo. Bartok took his cue early from Debussy, and the last pages of Quartet No. 6 disclose more than one harmonic or textural homage to the French master. Sighs and tremolandi urge us forward, toward “what rough beast, its hour come round at last.”

The Bonus track runs 29 minutes and has the Takacs Quartet members discuss their original formation and distinctive quality of their sound. They play a chunk of Bartok’s Fourth Quartet. One good discussion involves the “flexibility” of each musician to find a consensus of feeling about the particular piece they play. The last section, “I don’t think there’s any secret in string quartet playing,” provides some candid remarks about the prosaic aspects of such a poetic enterprise. Highly recommended!

— Gary Lemco

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