The Takács Quartet and their Beethoven Marathon: Emma Pomfret Meets the Takács Quartet as They Prepare to Play All 18 of the Composer’s Quartets

The Times – London
By Emma Pomfret

Face to face with the Takács Quartet, I’m desperately trying to remember who’s who. There’s the serious one, Edward Dusinberre, first violin, who leads the music and the conversation. The joker: Károly Schranz, second violin, and the pithy one: András Fejér (cello). The Hungarian duo are the two remaining founder members. Finally, there’s the gushy one, Geraldine Walther, viola.

These four very distinct personalities have fused into the world’s greatest string quartet. And next week, at the Southbank Centre in London, where they are associate artists, they will embark on the ultimate musical journey, performing every one of Beethoven’s 18 quartets; all nine glorious hours of them.

Thirty-five years into their career, the Takács have played each of these quartets over and over. Their recordings of the works have won Grammys and Gramophone awards. But nobody is jaded; nothing can disguise the group’s hunger to try again. “Beethoven is the only composer who is always an adventure to play,” Schranz says. “You can play many times and it’s never boring. The guy is just leading us.”

No slouch in the symphony department, Beethoven’s quartets, written in three blocks between 1798 and 1827, are truly radical. Ideas poured out of him as he screwed up the established quartet form: themes are juxtaposed, cadenzas erupt, melodies pinball between the instruments. “He expects you to be out of your comfort zone,” Dusinberre says. “And the audience should feel it’s a real effort for us, [they should get] a sense of us striving. That’s part of the performance drama.”

While intensity hooks the audience, what makes the journey compelling for these musicians is the intellectual discovery that can give familiar music a new twist, or even solve a problem. For instance, Dusinberre read that Beethoven was fascinated by Vienna’s mechanical orchestras (barrel organ musical toys). Hence, when a tricky, slow theme returns (in Opus 131), a funny “machinery” sound is introduced. Beethoven also wrote that his late quartets contained more freedom and fantasy than anything else he’d written, so the group is leaving more room for improvisation. “We take a few more risks,” Dusinberre adds. “These ideas aren’t dogmatic but a range of possibilities helps.”

The Takács’s complete quartet cycle sits alongside two previous Beethoven fests at the Southbank: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did the complete symphonies and Daniel Barenboim performed all five piano concertos in five days, echoing the maestro’s back-to-back Beethoven sonatas — the classical event of 2008. Were the Takács tempted to “do a Barenboim”?
“We’ve noticed more pressure now on what I think is ‘packaging’; the anxiety that you’re not going to sell [a concert] unless it’s a compact package,” Dusinberre says. “It’s a shame it’s developed in that way.” Walther and Fejér agree that it’s better for audiences to internalise their reactions over time and then return refreshed. Schranz, on the other hand, favours the intensity of performing all the quartets in a concentrated block: “Audiences can feel that something is going on. Like an emotional rollercoaster, the guy grabs you . . .”

The Takács have performed the quartet marathon once before, in Aspen, Colorado (they live in Boulder), over ten days. “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say we nearly killed each other,” Dusinberre says. Too much pressure and too many notes is the problem: Beethoven becomes an exercise in stamina, not in musical depth. So, this time round, the quartets won’t be performed chronologically — the first two concerts this month mix up early, middle and late quartets — and the cycle continues until May 2010.

Sixteen years ago, the Takács weathered their first change in personnel: Dusinberre, then an unknown English violinist, replaced the founder Gabor Takács-Nagy. The group had to re-establish itself, with American concerts thin on the ground and only a handful of loyal European promoters. Fast-forward ten years, to when Walther joins in 2005, after almost three decades as principal of the San Francisco Symphony, and the situation is very different. The Takács are at the top of their game and cannot pause for breath.

“Those first couple of years were really tough. I never practised so much in my life,” Walther remembers, a wave of exhaustion flooding the room. “I woke up 3am some nights and got the fiddle out. A quartet’s not for sissies.”

Walther’s arrival has had an impact: her sunny personality refreshes the daily grind of travelling and the group exude renewed energy. In rehearsals they discuss less and play more. More importantly, Takács-watchers detect a new mellowness to the quartet’s sound, pinpointing Walther’s warm, Guadagnini viola as the source.

This provokes quite a harrumph from the foursome. If there is any change in sound, Dusinberre argues, it’s from his violin. “I’ve very consciously tried to mellow my sound.” (“You are going in the right direction,” Schranz interjects.) “I often heard back live recordings and what I was doing was very clean and clear and quite sweet but I was missing a warmth.”

For Schranz and Fejér, any change in their playing has been subconscious: “Geri has this very warm, powerful voice and that’s evident,” Schranz says. “If she is playing something I try to follow the same sort of sound, but we are not thinking about it.”

Until I encountered the Takács, string quartets had rather passed me by; they were too refined — a bit chintz, jam and Hyacinth Bucket. But to hear the Takács live thrills the soul. All four sit facing the audience, not each other as most quartets do, which makes you party to the fascinating exchanges between the players. Dusinberre and Schranz egg each other on to greater virtuosity. And all four throw the music about like bantering friends, communicating through surreptitious looks.

Of today’s leading quartets — the Endellion, Belcea, Emerson et al — the Takács have succeeded the legendary Alban Bergs, who hung up their bows last year, as the world’s finest. That’s quite some mantle, I suggest. Do they like it? Dusinberre pulls a face. “It doesn’t make me feel comfortable. It’s impossible to live up to.”

Naturally, the next label will be the “When-will-they-retire? Quartet”. This falls on dismayed ears. The Takács have far too much to do: too much music to perfect and explore. Too many audiences to excite and awaken to bow out any time soon.

“The most rewarding thing is playing when 80 per cent of the audience has never been to a string quartet concert,” Schranz says, pinpointing their enduring motivation. “I always compare it a little bit with a bullfight. Sometimes the bull is just lazy and you really have to do everything to make it work. Then at the end, the audience is really like a wild bull. For me that’s the greatest achievement.”

© 2018 Takács Quartet