The latest appearance of the Takács Quartet, which has not, if memory serves, played in the Triangle for many years, drew a near-capacity audience to Reynolds Theatre at Duke on the evening of September 28 and provided lots of food for lots of thoughts, some of which are articulated herein - your scribe begs your indulgence!
Full houses for Durham's venerable Chamber Arts Society's offerings are nothing new, of course. The fine people who, year after year, pull together and put on this series know a good thing when they hear it, so their audiences have come to expect the best, and, for the most part, few people (except sometimes critics) are disappointed. The mix generally includes more string quartets than the other regional chamber music presenters offer*; cost plays a role in this, but the CAS folks are fortunate in that their series almost always sells out, which is, increasingly, a rare thing, in today's highly mobile society, wherein fewer and fewer people plan far enough ahead to commit to something that will happen, say, on a Saturday night next spring, and which large advance sales help the presenter to manage some quite costly ensembles.
What is it about the audience, though? Why does chamber music in Durham, as offered at Duke, routinely attract such large crowds? Is it Durham 's public, or is it mostly Duke ? Would the CAS routinely sell out in downtown Durham? These are among the great mysteries of life, artistic and otherwise, in the Triangle. For openers, maybe the Triangle is no longer the single cultural entity Bernie Reeves saw when he launched Spectator Magazine, which recently folded. Maybe it never was. One sees Durham people at Chapel Hill concerts, and Chapel Hill people in Durham, but it's still fairly remarkable (perhaps akin to "Birnam wood" actually on the move) when Raleighites turn up in either place, and it's still too rare (NC Symphony and ballet fans excepted, perhaps) when Whiskey Hillians and/or Gothic Rockpilers venture to the capital. We can envision culture truly uniting the Triangle, but perhaps not in our lifetimes. Maybe Bernie is right, now, when he insists that the future for the support of "culture" in Raleigh (which is, in a word, quirky, and which is, in some respects, and in the view of this 50-year resident of the city, fairly unsophisticated), lies to the east .
Anyway, the Takács came, and they played, and the crowd went wild at first, after Beethoven's Third Quartet (in D, Op.18/3). We didn't much like the group's approach to this score, but our assessment was literally out-shouted (there were cheers , which are even rarer at chamber music events than seeing Raleigh people NOT give a standing ovation at, say, The Symphony!) in our assessment. For the record, what we didn't like was the way the players leaned into the phrases, which seemed almost affected, and which, to our ears, resulted in a sort of sing-song or accordion-like presentation of the music. It was wondrously clear and precise, and every voice emerged with shattering clarity, and there was plenty of incisiveness and lots of intensity, and the thing was technically clean (aside, perhaps, from one or two momentary miscalculations on what we believe was first violinist Edward Dusinberre's part), but it wasn't Beethoven as we perceive early Beethoven quartets should be played, and we were therefore not blown away.
The outline immediately above fit Ravel's Quartet, heard next, much better, and the Takács' reading of it was, in many respects, memorable. The dynamics were wide-ranging and almost infinitely shaded, although they tended, for the most part, to be on the soft side. This clearly obliged the audience to concentrate closely, much like the General (or, if you prefer, the Admiral) who whispers his orders, rather than barking them. It worked, in this case, yet for reasons that elude us, the response of the crowd was somewhat less demonstrative.
The second half was devoted to Schubert's Quartet No. 15 (in G, D.887). Ah, Schubert. One either loves his music or hates it. We think there's not much in-between, among the public. We happen to be keen fans of Schubert quartets (speaking of which, we recommend the Leipzig String Quartet's more-than-complete integral recordings on MDG, which serious music lovers may profitably bolster with Dover's ridiculously inexpensive reprint collection of most - but not all - of the scores). Because we are Schubert fans and because the Takács played the living daylights out of this music, we were very impressed - and, again, mystified that the crowd's response was even less enthusiastic than for the Ravel. Go figure. It is a long work, and the performance lasted till 10 p.m. or so. It received a truly wonderful performance, with plank-holder (charter member) Károly Schranz, violin, more than holding his own against Dusinberre (who again seemed not to get quite up to some of the higher pitches), Roger Tapping making some glorious alto (viola) statements, and cellist András Fejér, another founding member, shoring up the bass lines to beat the band. (Reynolds can be a tricky place to put across a score - any score - so the fact that this group sounded so good may have been a factor of where we were sitting.) But all that said, we were troubled to note - not for the first time, with touring groups (or local ones, for that matter) that these folks omitted the big first-movement repeat. We're not really sticklers about this sort of thing, but it's certainly worth mentioning, because poor Franz isn't around any more to defend himself from such affronts. So it was good - more than good - but the Takács gets a black mark on the slate, rendered with squeaky chalk, for denying its audience the opportunity to hear this score as the composer intended.
For the record, those aforementioned Leipzigers return to the Triangle, on this series, in March. Especially if they offer Schubert, we urge all committed fans of this composer to show up to hear 'em. We are virtually certain that whatever they play will be complete.
[*In the interest of full disclosure, let the record show that my spouse is the manager of one of these "other" groups, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. Sharing this here (and not, perhaps, for the first time) will also explain the total absence of the Lambert byline from CVNC 's coverage of the Guild's events. jwl]