No theater fan would miss the chance to see and hear Ian McKellen perform "Macbeth" or, were he still alive, John Gielgud perform "Hamlet." No sports fan would miss the chance to watch Michael Jordan in his prime with the Chicago Bulls. So it is that no fan of chamber music would miss the chance to see and hear one of the great contemporary outfits of our time, the Takács Quartet.
That's a simple way of placing this esteemed quartet on a plane of comparison anyone can understand. Thankfully, the world of string quartets rarely falls to that sort of contest. Music tastes are too subjective, and individual standards across composers too varied to make any one quartet fit anyone's criterion.
If the hostage-takers of artistic demand ever demanded ransom, though, there's no doubt Takács Quartet could pay in full and then some.
Founded 1975 in Budapest, the current lineup features two of its original Hungarian members: second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér. With British violinist Edward Dusinberre joining as first violinist in 1993, they wasted no time producing first-rate recordings of the two bodies of work most central to quartet playing: the quartets of Bela Bartók in 1998, followed by the complete cycle of Beethoven's quartets in 2005. With the addition of American violist Geraldine Walther in 2006, for years principal player of the San Francisco Symphony, the Takács then recorded two Schubert quartets.
Thursday's concert, the same night of the U.S. vice presidential debate, began genially enough, with Haydn's Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5, conceived at a time when the Austrian composer was plush enough in commissions to expand his art. The Takács played the 1797 work which smiles broadly between movements in singing lines that rose and fell with the ease of a supreme, natural gravity.
Schubert's "Rosamunde" quartet in A Minor, finished four years before the composer's untimely death, announced a more mournful tone, veering just on the edge of the personal agony that marked his later works. The opening movement and Andante were beautiful beyond words. The sigh of Schranz and Dusinberre's violins followed the deep notes of Fejér's cello into ecstasies, all bridged by the middle-voice of Walther's viola, in the work's exquisite Menuetto: Allegro movement.
Then it was time to fasten the seat belts for Bartók's fourth quartet, a bracing work in five movements, the fourth of which requires that the quartet place all bows to the side for pizzicato plucking of the strings. "Magyar fire" is the critic's standard trope whenever the quartets of Bartók are invoked, if only because the works themselves draw heavily from the tradition of Hungarian folk songs the composer knew so well.
The Takács played the work almost as if straight from their blood, coming close to stamping their feet to emphasize the work's swirling lyrical lines, tumultuous rhythms, and motifs that invoke the scamper of insects even as the notes conjure rainbows.
The quartet's consummate precision, synchronicity and, above all, artistry was evident at every moment. The end of every note melted as if into silence before another began, lines were exchanged as if by reflex.
It's often said of string quartets that they must play as siblings in unison after being separated at birth. With the Takács, the power of their focus is such that it's doubtful they were ever separated. Each work breathed both at the cellular level, where every detail is groomed, and at the level of the whole organism, where limbs, muscle and mind propel it forward.
After a standing ovation, the quartet's achingly beautiful performance of the slow movement from Antonín Dvorák's "American Quartet" made a solace-filled end to an evening that offered a whirlwind tour through time of the string quartet itself.
Classical music fans can argue for themselves which of today's quartets stands as "best." For this Thursday night, as the vice presidential candidates bickered, the Takács made music that needed no fact-checking.