The Friends of Chamber Music’s well-attended season opener featured the world-renowned Takács Quartet in a recital of music by Schubert, Britten, and Dvořák.
The Folly Theater was comfortably full for the opening concert of 2012–13 season of the Friends of Chamber Music, as audiences clamored excitedly to their seats in anticipation of the world-famous Takács Quartet. The concert began with Schubert’s Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, “Rosamunde.” The subtitle comes from the composer’s incidental music for a failed play, Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus. The piece emerged quietly, with a lyrical, expansive melody in the first violin that sang over a low ostinato in the second violin that reminiscent of Schubert’s vast catalog of lieder, especially “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” The soft, mournful melody and a gentle detour to a major key gave way suddenly to dramatic, perfectly coordinated chords and whirling ascending motives throughout the quartet. In addition to showcasing the first violin, Edward Dusinberre, as the de facto melodic leader of the group, the first movement also gave Károly Schranz a chance to show off his throaty second violin sound in exposed passages.
The second movement of Schubert’s work contains the “Rosamunde” theme, and the group treated it with a warm sound and songlike interpretation. One of the highlights of the work was the tuneful playing between Schranz and violist Geraldine Walther in exposed arpeggiated sections. The movement also featured the first truly virtuosic playing in the piece, with whirling figures skittering from one voice to another, as well as effective and emotive dynamic swells. The third movement, although marked “Menuetto: Allegretto and Trio,” began with a sinister cello motive that imbued the whole movement with a drama that belied the cheerful connotation of the dance-like title.
The fourth and final movement, Allegro moderato, was a playful foray into major and once again gave the first violin a chance to shine as the virtuosic leader of the group. The piece as a whole highlighted the group’s strengths, which surely come naturally from playing together for so many years. The four musicians communicated effortlessly, never losing coordination even as they moved practically out of their seats with the flow of the music. Some of the Romantic passion of the piece was lost however as the dynamic range tended toward the soft side.
Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 rounded out the first half of the concert. Written in honor of the 250thanniversary of Henry Purcell’s death, the piece contains many allusions to Purcell’s music but with Britten’s signature compositional flavor. The first movement’s tribute to Purcell’s “Fantasia Upon One Note” set the viola with the drone while the two violins, joined by the lower voice of cellist András Fejér, achieved an almost impossibly homogeneous sound in the twisty unison melody. The introduction gave way to a fiery passage with vigorous staccato lines jumping from player to player. Especially enjoyable was the playful nature of the movement’s pizzicatos and glissandos like suggestive musical eyebrow raises.
Mutes couldn’t control the vigorous, biting music of the Vivace second movement. Viola and cello especially shone in their virtuosic, intense duo, which was then handed to the pair of violins. Dusinberre wailed with extreme virtuosity on a gypsy-like solo, and it was in this movement that I first heard the louder end of the dynamic range that I missed in the Schubert. The massive third movement was a giant Chacony, with twenty variations on a Sarabande theme. My favorite was Walther’s huge viola solo; I could have listened to her rich, flexible sound all night. An electrifying violin solo sizzled the group into a long cadence in C major that rang resoundingly through the hall.
The second half of the concert was comprised entirely of Dvořák’s String Quartet in F Major, “American,” so titled because it was written in the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa when Dvořák was on vacation from his teaching position in New York. It was during this period from 1892–95 that Dvořák wrote this quartet and another piece that is strongly associated with an “American” sound, his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Both pieces are full of idioms—syncopations, pentatonic modality, and rhythmic structures—that listeners like to call “American” for their similarity to spirituals and folk music, but which truly belie Dvořák’s Czech nationality.
I moved upstairs to the balcony of the Folly Theater for the second half of the program, hoping that my need for more sound would be solved with a simple reposition—and I was right. From the first notes of Dvořák’s quartet I couldn’t stop smiling, because the sound from my new seat was joyful and filled up the hall. We were once again treated to Walther’s gorgeous sound as she set up the bubbly, recognizable melody over the other players’ rippling ostinato. The cello pizzicatos in the recapitulation were splashy and lively, and his secondary melody was elegant and wistful. Fejér shone again in the second movement in a soaring high solo that still maintained a moving depth of sound.
The lively, open melody of the third movement was perfectly coordinated and full of dynamic shifts in energy that highlighted how well the group thinks together. The folky ostinato that powered the final movement made the cheerful opening melody sound very much like a popular song as the players easily tossed off extremely challenging passages. The inner lyrical sections were rare, delightful moments of liquid pause. It was clear from the vigor of their playing and the physical energy visible on stage that each member of the quartet not only enjoys playing this music, but enjoys playing it together.
Urged back onstage, the group performed the finale from Haydn’s Op. 76, No. 5, a zippy, virtuosic movement that showed off the group’s outstanding energy and their clear delight at playing this music. The Takács Quartet clearly deserves all the praise they have garnered over the course of their storied career, and their evening in Kansas City was a beautiful beginning to another fantastic season of chamber music.