The Problem of Perfection

The Takács Quartet

(Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violins; Geraldine Walther, viola; András Fejér, cello).

At the Marjorie Luke Theatre, Friday, July 21.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

It was a hot, airless night. In the heavy darkness of Marjorie Luke, the inadequate air-conditioning sent an occasional wisp of coolness across the back of my neck or over my knuckles — just enough to make me conscious of how uncomfortable I was.

It takes a special kind of gift to devise a program as tedious as this, particularly the first half. The regular faculty of the Music Academy could never have come close — they had to import a guest ensemble to do it. Think, for instance, of having to sift through Mozart’s 26 string quartets to find the one with no memorable melodies, and then to follow it with a quartet by Benjamin “Tuneless Ben” Britten. That takes talent. The Takács Quartet has been together for 31 years, and they have a polished, seamless sound. They are all fine musicians, and their performance was as smooth as whipped cream on velvet.

Of all the logistical and musical difficulties confronting composers of string quartets and the ensembles that play them, one overshadows the rest. It is the problem of perfection, of the closed circle. This is music written for the private entertainment of musicians. The ideal audience consists of two violinists, a violist, and a cellist.

The problem for performers, when you are not in your living room but playing in front of several hundred people, is opening up to let the audience in. This is partly a matter of repertoire, and partly a matter of the individual musicians’ imagination. The Takács Quartet, and this is completely my personal opinion, is deficient on both sides of the equation.

Now, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, which concluded the evening, was far and away the most engaging piece on the program, but the Takács’s performance of it, while letter perfect, revealed the paucity of their collective imagination. Like most of Schubert’s works in larger classical forms, this quartet is architecturally incoherent, but it is one of the most dramatic things he ever wrote. Alas, the Takács had used up all its histrionic tricks on the pseudo-profundities of the Britten, and they had no power left to put into the Schubert, which came off anemic and half-hearted.

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