The special treat at Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater on Saturday evening, March 25, was the Takács Quartet, presented by the Chamber Arts Society. The treat was enhanced by the addition of pianist Garrick Ohlsson for a performance of Brahms’ Quintet in F minor in the second half of the concert. There is not much to say than what has already been said about the Takács Quartet in their 30 years of performing and recording. Their most recent award-winning recording on the Decca label is a complete Beethoven quartet cycle. They have received special praise for their readings of the late quartets (Beethoven’s opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, and 135), the first of which was included in the program. Since 1983, the quartet has been in residence at the University of Colorado. Károly Schranz, violin, and András Fejér, cello, have been members since the founding of the ensemble by students at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest in 1975. Edward Dusinberre, first violin, joined the quartet in 1993, and Geraldine Walther, viola, became a member just last year. Their reputation of musical excellence, superb interpretation, and focused execution continues and was demonstrated in the Durham performance.

The program opened with Mozart’s String Quartet No 19 in C, K.465, nicknamed “Dissonant” because of Mozart’s clever “set-up” for the sunny theme of the Allegro. In the opening Adagio section, he avoids the expected cadences, creating what was (for his time) a musical nightmare as a contrast to the bright and lively melody that finally flutters forth like a butterfly after a spring shower. Through the lovely Andante cantabile, the Menuetto: Allegro and the closing Allegro, the Takács Quartet played from inside the music with an artistry that made some two hundred and twenty years melt away, revealing the music as fresh and vital.

Whereas Mozart was surprised by the immediate popularity of his “Haydn” quartets, Beethoven’s late quartets did not find understanding and acceptance until more than a generation after his death. Returning to the form some fifteen years after the so-called middle quartets, Beethoven, by then completely deaf, brought greater complexity and new textural and harmonic expressions into existence. While there are no programmatic hints for this music, he was, without doubt, working out the turmoil he was going through and the meaning of his life. The String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127, is the first of these late quartets. The music is, by turns, majestic, stormy, lyrically tender or dancing. The modes of development are complex though not yet so much as in the works to follow. The Takács Quartet has a mastery of this challenging music that is rarely equaled and, many agree, probably never excelled. Their impeccable musicianship and flawless focus kept the audience riveted throughout the performance.

After the intermission, world-class pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined the quartet for Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. I was left with two impressions of this performance. The first was of Mahler’s comment about the Alpine meadows he and Brahms loved so much; he said, in effect, that the melodies there grew so prolifically that one could not pluck them all in a lifetime. In my mind’s eye I could see in this music that well-known picture of Brahms walking down a wild-flower-surrounded path, hands behind his back, in obvious bliss and contemplation.

The other impression I was left with was Ohlsson’s page-turner wrestling with the piano score on the piano’s music rack. He would turn a page and lay it down ever so carefully, only to have the left-hand page slide forward at the bottom and twist the page awkwardly. This happened with almost every page. During a break between movements, Ohlsson, tried to fold the score (perhaps a new one) more firmly back, but that didn’t help much. It was a distraction that caused my mind to wander a bit into the fields of technology and music publishing, to be called back only by the power and beauty of the music and the performance of these outstanding musicians. Apparently the pianist was not distracted at all by this inconvenience. Like the bride’s slip falling down as she walks out of the church after the most significant ceremony in her life, this little distraction did not mar the evening, which was a delightful treat from beginning to end.