March 22, 2017

Takács String Quartet Closes Beethoven Cycle in Princeton

Taking Princeton’s mind off the recent spring snowstorm, the Takács String Quartet returned to Richardson Auditorium this past week to close its Complete Beethoven string quartet cycle.  Last Wednesday night’s concert (the closing performance of the series was Thursday night) featured violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér in three string quartets showing both the classical structure and style of the genre and how Beethoven stretched the boundaries of the string quartet form.

Back in November, the Takács String Quartet began the cycle with a quartet from Opus 18, a set of six string quartets composed in Beethoven’s “Early” period.  The players of the Takács Quartet returned to Opus 18 for Wednesday night’s penultimate concert in the cycle, performing String Quartet in B-flat Major, (No. 6 from Opus 18), a piece rooted in Haydn and Mozart, yet marked with the composer’s individual compositional stamp.  The Takács Quartet opened No. 6 with a teasing dialog among the instruments, as cellist Mr. Fejér provided an especially light but decisive touch.  The first movement’s second theme was regal with a bit of harmonic twist, with first violinist Mr. Dusinberre effectively conveying most of the melodic action. The players executed subito pianos well, and throughout the piece showed that they were not afraid of silences or breaks in the music.

Beethoven opened the final movement of this Quartet with “La Malinconia”—a passage he instructed to be played “with utmost delicacy”—and the Takács Quartet’s second violin and viola brought out the mournful melody particularly well.  The “Malinconia” was tension-filled, as a climbing cello line led the players to a light and airy closing “Allegretto.”

The Takács Quartet looked again to Beethoven’s earlier periods to close the concert with a classic Beethoven string quartet, but in between was the cleverly innovative String Quartet in F Major, Opus 135, the last major work which Beethoven composed. Although not as revolutionary as the composer’s other “Late” quartets, Opus 135 retained an expansion of structure and a sense of questioning that culminated in the legendary notation of “Muss es sein?” (“Must it be?”) that has challenged Beethoven scholars for decades.

From the opening viola line, Opus 135 had a sense of question-and-answer among the instruments, with false cadences and abrupt halts in the music which the Takács Quartet handled uniformly. The Quartet seemed to be playing almost to themselves in the third movement, with unison rhythmic motives and a collective sense of poignancy. No matter which instrument had the melodic material, it was well blended into the overall texture, and the “questioning” character of the music was particularly well conveyed by Mr. Fejér’s clean cello playing. In the closing movement, well-unified pizzicato playing by all musicians seemed to answer the “Muss es sein?” question musically with a decisive “Es muss sein!” (“It must be!”)—and all was well.

The “Razumovsky” Quartet, which closed the concert (String Quartet in C Major, Opus 59, No. 3), recalled the classic 18th-century quartet style of Mozart, with a suspense-building introduction.  The Quartet finally launched with first violinist Mr. Dusinberre taking center stage, as sequential passages from the other instruments drove the music forward.  Another scholarly debate has raged in recent years about Beethoven’s possible use of a traditional Russian folksong in the second movement, but even if not through a pre-existing tune, the Takács Quartet brought out a Russian flavor in a somewhat pastoral movement.  Mr. Fejér’s ever-increasingly delicate pizzicato notes, combined with fast and furious playing by all musicians in the final passages, brought the performance to a glorious close.

There is no question that this year’s Beethoven string quartet cycle performed by the Takács String Quartet has been a huge success.  With pre-concert lectures, post-concert discussions and other educational activities built around performances, Princeton University Concerts has made this cycle a true community musical experience.

The Princeton University Orchestra’s next concerts will be on Friday and Saturday, April 28 and 29 in Richardson Auditorium. The Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concerts will feature music of Hindemith and Mahler. For information call (609) 258-9220 or visit