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Takacs Quartet gives powerful, moving performance
February 25th, 2009
By Father Basil De Pinto

The Takacs Quartet (pronounced Takatch in Hungarian) made their annual visit to the Bay Area on February 15 under the auspices of Cal Performances. As always, the concert was sold out, including dozens of stage seats. A remarkable ensemble, they never fail to please and this occasion was no exception. Of the original group of four Hungarian musicians only one remains, but the qualities of superb technique combined with incisive interpretive skill are unchanged and seem to grow more admirable with time.

Indicative of the confidence the group has in its followers they played the Bartok Second Quartet to begin. The immediate response must be how easy it is to listen to difficult music when it is well played. The Second may not be the thorniest of the six quartets by this master; that epithet most likely attaches to numbers three through five. But the listener unfamiliar with this music could be deterred by its demands, touching as they do on Bartok’s rare use of twelve-tone sonority.

Instead, in the first two movements we were treated to a clarity and smoothness that were inviting because so musically apt; the music does demand close attention but it is richly rewarded in playing like this. The third movement, an unusual lento, was marked by plangent tones seeming to emerge from mysterious stillness that was powerful and moving.

Next came the last quartet from Schumann’s group of three, Op. 41, which made for a rather long first half of the concert. The composer thought highly of these works but they are among the least popular of his output and for good reason. To these ears at least they lack the creative invention so abundant elsewhere in Schumann, and tend to the tedious rather than the inspired. Needless to say the Takacs played them with their customary commitment and deep respect. Notable were Geraldine Walther’s lovely viola solo in the adagio, and the cleanly articulated and jaunty finale.

Cunningly saving the best for last the group welcomed famed clarinetist Richard Stoltzman to join them for a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. When we connect this instrument with Mozart’s name what first comes to mind is the magnificent concerto that he completed only weeks before his death in 1791. But two years earlier he brought out this piece for smaller forces, utterly charming and full of his irrepressible talent. In the context of this concert the effect was, “You ate your green beans so now you can have dessert.”

The quintet begins with a tune Mozart used more than once and which American ears recognize as “East Side, West Side” of popular fame. The repeats were delicious and more than welcome. In the slow movement a duet between clarinet and first violin was beguiling; all through, Mr. Stoltzman showed admirable restraint, given that his instrument, especially in the piercing upper register might have overwhelmed the rest. But the balance was just right.

The finale consists of a theme and five variations. Classical music revels in these riffs, just as jazz music does, the difference being that jazz players improvise, also a classical requirement, but Mozart left nothing to chance and wrote out these variations. The accomplishments of both the string players and the clarinetist were outstanding and brought the concert to a happily ringing close.

The Takacs Quartet will give another concert in this series on March 8. It too is sold out, but you can always check the box office for returns - and pray.

A priest of the Oakland Diocese, Father De Pinto is a frequent contributor on the arts scene.

From February 27, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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