Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Takacs Quartet/Angela Hewitt @ Southbank Centre, London

20, 21 January 2008

The concert programme on Monday evening noted how, while Mozart’s music walks on air and Beethoven’s plumbs the depths, Haydn’s remains “firmly anchored on terra firma”.

And the performance here, of the String Quartet Op.74 No.2, though pleasing, remained distinctly earthbound.

The Takcs Quartet did successfully convey the work’s humour and warmth, both musically and physically.

Their playing was virtuosic, with energetically rendered silences providing a springboard between phrases, the players communicating much with their contorting faces and dancing bodies. However, much of the work (the jubilant Finale being the exception) would have benefited from a more rhythmically incisive delivery, while various troubles of intonation and an occasional loss of smooth legato from the violins interfered with the interpretation, distracting rather than captivating the ear.

These troubles would continue throughout the evening, the more intricate rhythms of Bartk’s Fifth Quartet tending to lack clarity. In comparison to the clean contours of Haydn, Bartk’s composition is elusive, its breadth of musical inspiration great and its sound world endlessly changing, filled with unsettlingly swirling chromatics and dissonance, ominous cello glissandi and finely spun counterpoint. The group, while losing some linear clarity, provided a sonorous and evocative reading, alert to the work’s disparate yet homogenously melded elements.

Yet a true homogeneity of sound would be drawn from the quartet only in the latter stages of Beethoven’s Quartet Op.59 No.3. Initially, during this interpretation, I feared that the slight scrappiness of timbre and intonation that had characterised the Haydn had returned, but the ensemble balance became increasingly tight, with a rich bass resonance to the sound and gently balanced violin lines above. The bleak Andante con moto quasi allegretto drew one to the edge of the abyss, even if the programme oddly termed the movement “gentle and reflective”, while the culminating accelerating fugue was breathtaking, barring one passage of poor intonation from the first violin. The surge of gradually accumulating sonic glory was hard to resist.

The previous day, Angela Hewitt performed Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in the Royal Festival Hall. It would have been easy to dismiss the concert – surely we all know Hewitt’s Bach by now? – but it would also have been foolish, for this was a stunning event. As I discovered when I returned from the concert, the pianist’s mother had died the previous evening, and I can only offer my sincerest thanks to her for upholding her performance commitment, and also for providing such a mesmerising, deeply felt interpretation of what can become, in the wrong hands, an emotionally cold set of technical exercises. Hewitt’s frail, feather-light touch on the keyboard in the concert’s first half was gripping, the most virtuosic and valedictory of fugues magically infused with sorrow, before a hair-raising veer into Beethovenian tragedy before the interval, a moment so shockingly intense that I was all but unable to applaud as the house lights came up.

After the interval, Hewitt’s touch become fractionally more purposeful, with momentary hints of heavy-handedness creeping into her playing, while occasional instances of rhythmic uncertainty could ruffle the performance’s lilting surface. Where this reading succeeded, however, was in gelling the work into an organic whole and drawing out every colour from the score, distilling them into a whole of kaleidoscopic variety and incandescent beauty. Absolutely breathtaking.

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