Dallas — The Takács String Quartet opened of the Dallas Chamber Music’s 70th season. Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium, while not full, had a decent crowd (once again remarkably devoid of students) for a mostly excellent program played with style and enthusiasm.
In fact, it was that enthusiasm that was the most remarkable aspect of the performance. Too often, we see performances of music with a wide range of emotions expressed, from despair to buffoonery—all met with the same stern, serious mien. Not so on Monday night.
This attention to the personality of the music was displayed right away as they opened with Haydn’s B-flat major String Quartet (Op. 64, No. 3). In their able hands, the happy-go-luck first theme, with its three staccato notes, sounded like a child skipping along. The more serious second theme changes the mood with the childlike ability to quickly change moods. The other two movements received the same care. They took a more serous approach to the Adagio. They played up all of the surprising rhythmic byplay in the minuet and the rollicking final movement, which was taken a hair too fast for an allegro (no matter it is qualified with con spirito). They had fun and we had fun. You could picture Haydn’s sly wink.
The second selection was about as different as you could imagine. Leoš Janáček's 1928 String Quartet No. 2, "Listy důvěrné ("Intimate Letters") is almost embarrassingly biographical. The quartet takes both its name and inspiration from the over 700 adoring love letters the composer exchanged with Kamila Stösslová, a woman who was 38 years younger and, worse, married. He told her that every note of the quartet was a like a passionate kiss. Hearing this work as played by the Takács Quartet bordered on voyeurism.
Janáček originally wrote the quartet with a viola d’amore instead of the standard viola, partly for its romantic name, but mostly for its fragile and other worldly sound. Wile it proved to be too soft spoken for a string quartet, the part went back to the viola. Violist Geraldine Walther set the mood right away a fine imitation of the d’amore version with the opening phrases. You can read my interview with her here.
Tempi change quickly in this work, but the quartet knit this dispersed work together into a love letter itself—but one we cannot see or read. The composer uses some non-traditional techniques to create different moods, such as using the bow over the fingerboard (sul ponticello). This can often sound added in as a curiosity, but not here. It created a whisper when the second violinist used it playing fast soft and gossamer descending scales. While the final movement brought his Czech heritage to the forefront with a peasant folk dance, the quartet ended with an unfinished feeling, as though they were too overcome to continue.
The final work on the program was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8, the middle of the three written for Prince Razumovsky, a Russian diplomat and skillful amateur violinist. His only stipulation is that Beethoven was to incorporate a Russian folk tune somewhere in the quartets. In this one, Beethoven used “Glory to God,” a tune that also pops up in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
The Takács did an excellent job with this quartet. Like in the other works on the program, they paid great attention to all of the details. All of the phrasing was given careful consideration and, while some passages were phrased differently that we are used to hearing, they made a good case for their approach. My only complaint concerns the dynamics. While the softs were exquisite, the loud parts were overplayed. We even heard string buzz on the cello such as you might hear an aggressive modern work. After all the sensitive playing we enjoyed, it was off-putting to hear such a roughshod approach, no matter how meticulously everything else was played.