Published: Jan. 28, 2011

Takács Quartet – review
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Andrew Clements. January 27th 2011
5 stars

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After devoting their London appearances last season to Beethoven, the Takács Quartet’s three Southbank recitals in the current term range much more widely. Their second emulated the basic outline of the first, two months ago: a quartet from Haydn’s Op 71 set was followed by major 20th- and 19th-century works, in this case by Bartók and Smetana.

Later this year, the Takács are giving a complete cycle of the Bartók quartets in conjunction with the Philharmonia’s survey of the composer, and this account of the Third, the most concise and uncompromising of the six, was the perfect taster. The formidable technical demands were met effortlessly, and the performance conceived in a seamless arc; yet the Takács still conveyed the music’s strangeness, with every tingling detail fitting precisely and the last section a haunting essay in desolation.

Smetana’s First Quartet, From My Life, was just as extraordinary. Precision and phrasing, which can seem to be the main preoccupations of lesser string quartets, are merely starting points for the Takács. Their trip through Smetana’s slice of autobiography, with its tipsy polka and hymn-like slow movement, right up to the terrifying climax on the high E symbolising his deafness, was a sheer delight.

The first few seconds of the concert, the five chords that open Haydn’s Quartet in B flat, perfectly balanced and weighted, would have been enough to assure this audience that they were about to experience one of the wonders of the musical world. And there was more Haydn as an encore: the finale of the C major Quartet Op 74 No 1, conveyed as dazzling quicksilver.