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Interview with Takács Quartet

Category: News & Views: International Concert Season

The Takács Quartet is a firm favourite among the touring ensembles returning to Musica Viva. One of the best-loved string quartets in the business, it was founded in 1975 by four Hungarian musicians, two of whom – second violin Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér – are still very much in place. The ensemble has dealt with trauma over the years, notably the death of its original violist, Gabor Ormai, and the departure of its first violin, Gabor Takács-Nagy, now a celebrated conductor; but with the American violist Geraldine Walther joining 11 years ago and the British leader Edward Dusinberre approaching his 24th anniversary in the post, their reputation remains world class

Dusinberre spoke to me from his home in Boulder, Colorado, where the quartet is resident at the university. “During the academic year we’re here roughly half the time,” he says. “When we’re in Boulder, these eight or nine weeks of rehearsals without a concert are when we do our serious work. They’re critical, but also a bit dangerous: that’s when you might argue about interpretations and open cans of worms. When you go on the road and there’s the discipline of being agreed on stage that night, it focuses the brain in a different way.” Not that they argue that much: “Károly and András have been playing together for 42 years and they’re still talking to each other,” Dusinberre laughs.

They enjoy Australia’s musical community and are looking forward to their return visit. “The halls we go to are quite big for chamber music, seating 1200-1500, but they’re generally full and there are usually quite a lot of kids there,” he says. “The audiences are up for an adventure. When I joined the quartet in 1993, one of my first tours was to Australia and that was the first time a promoter insisted that someone talked to the audience, to break the ice. So that was my first introduction to talking from the stage, as my Hungarian colleagues used a convenient language excuse to make me do it!”

Teaching activities add grist to everyone’s mill: “We do masterclasses in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and at the Sydney Conservatorium, and all the students are good,” Dusinberre enthuses. “We recruited one of our graduate quartets from there: the Orava Quartet, who came to Boulder to study with us a few years ago, then went back to Australia and are doing very well.”

The Takács is touring two programmes, which have in common a newly commissioned quartet by MV’s artistic director, Carl Vine – his sixth – and a Haydn quartet from the Op.76 set, respectively Nos.2 and 5. One musical line-up also features Beethoven’s Op.127; the other turns to Dvorák, the Quartet in A flat major, Op.105.

Dusinberre is excited about the Vine premiere: “He wrote his fourth quartet for us about 13 years ago and we loved it,” he says. Quartet writing is always a challenge for composers: “Although a lot write for quartet now, very few really know how to. I prefer the model in theatre, where the playwright workshops a piece, gets feedback early on, then rethinks accordingly. With quartets we don’t have that situation. We’re particularly grateful to Carl because his stuff is just ready to go. It’s melodic, lyrical and dramatic, with plenty of storytelling, and there’s good contrast and a strong relationship between the movements.”

Haydn is central to the Takács’s repertoire and the Hungarian qualities of the music, often with whirling, energetic finales, well suit their style. “It’s good to be working on Haydn because it reminds you always of the conversational element in the group and how to fine-tune the witticism of the exchanges,” says Dusinberre. “Those basics of quartet technique benefit the rest of our playing. There’s also that earthy side to the music that you can really get your teeth into. You can sometimes be a bit rude with Haydn, which is rarely the case with Mozart.”

Op.127 is the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, a major preoccupation for Dusinberre himself. In 2016 he published a book entitled Beethoven for a Later Age, entwining the stories behind the writing of these masterpieces with the life of the Takács Quartet and his own journey with them.

“I was amused to come across stories of what an unsuccessful first performance Op.127 had,” he remarks. “Notably, how the first violinist fell flat on his face and was fired, either by Beethoven or the other members of the quartet! In the second performance they had a different violinist and played the piece twice, with an intermission. It’s reassuring to think you’re part of a long tradition of performers who struggled with it. But it’s also so lyrical, the way the first movement ends with a long melodic line that just disappears into nothing.”

The Dvorák’s demands are altogether different: “When it gets loud and dramatic there’s so much going on and we worked hard to create clarity out of that. Yet you can’t back away from it. You need to play it with a lot of commitment: there’s a lot of darkness and depth.” Oddly enough, Dvorák wrote the slow movement at Christmas: “I don’t know if his family would have been wondering why he had to write music even on Christmas Day, or if it might have been a relief to pack him off and let him get on with it!”

And so, as always, the Takács Quartet’s tour promises to be a highlight of the musical year. To toast their good health in Hungarian, say “Egészségedre!”

Takács Quartet tour Australia 10 - 28 August 2017. 
View their full Australian tour dates and programs.