Most of us will not be fortunate enough to be able to attend the 2004 Summer Music Festival in Aspen, Colorado where the Takács Quartet will be performing the complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets. However, for a one-night gig, the audience at the final concert of the 2003-04 Chamber Arts Society’s season had the rare treat of a Beethoven mini-cycle. The string quartets of Beethoven are generally divided into three groupings – early, middle and late, reflecting the chronological order of composition. On March 20, in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater, great interpreters of these masterpieces performed a quartet from each of these periods.

There has been an enormous volume of recordings and writings on the string quartets of Beethoven. They are often considered the best way to study and get a feel for the growth and development of Beethoven’s style, progressing from works heavily influenced by Mozart and Haydn to the personal and sometimes anguished compositions of his later years. Hearing in the same evening three of these quartets, from each of the different periods, the first impression is that although 30 years separate the earliest from the latest, there is the distinctive stamp of Beethoven in practically every measure of every quartet. It is often said that the Op. 18 quartets are the “lightweight” ones that are most “classical” in nature, the middle ones are the bridge from the earlier to the later style, and the late ones the most advanced, personal and anguished, but there is as much pathos and harmonic complexity in the adagio movement of the Op. 18, No. 6, quartet as in any of the late, more “advanced” quartets. Likewise, the rollicking vivace of the Op. 135 quartet, written shortly before Beethoven’s death, is as joyous and classical in form as anything by Haydn.

There are many string quartet ensembles, both currently and historically, who have specialized in these magnificent works, and indeed there is enough in them to consume a lifetime. It is a good thing for music lovers that, despite what some may say, there can never really be a “definitive” performance or recording of a work. If that were not the case, we’d never get to hear sublime readings of these quartets by groups like the Takács Quartet. Formed in 1975 by students at Budapest’s Liszt Academy, they soon won numerous international quartet competitions and quickly gained a reputation as a polished, elegant and sensitive ensemble. They have been quartet-in-residence since 1983 at the University of Colorado in Boulder along with positions at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. The group currently consists of Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violins, Roger Tapping, viola, and András Fejer, cello.

They employ a seating arrangement that seems to work the best for string quartets and though it is a simple idea, not enough quartets use it. Rather than being seated in a four corner box-like formation, the two players nearest to the front of the stage (first violin and viola) are flared out so that it is more of a semicircle. This is much more visually appealing to the audience and also gives the viola more projection. The violist, Tapping, also tended to turn a bit towards the audience when his part was of primary importance.

Takács is not an overly demonstrative group, but in this case a lack of outward drama in no way transfers to the music. As any string player will tell you, one of the more difficult techniques is the ability to play very quietly while still maintaining a great deal of intensity. For one player to do this is a great accomplishment; for four players to do this together is a rare and beautiful thing to experience. I have never heard a quartet play pianissimo passages, and even entire movements, with such clarity, depth and passion as the Takács. Since one aspect of Beethoven’s style is his wide and quite often abrupt dynamic and emotional changes, the more effectively a group can play these extremes, the more these differences engage and excite the listener.

When one goes to hear a group with the stature of the Takács Quartet, technical expertise is assumed and expected. Sometimes, as it did this evening, it rises to such a level that you can actually hear audible gasps of disbelief and looks of wonder on people’s faces. The last quartet on the program was from Beethoven’s middle period – the last of the Op. 59 group, known collectively as the “Razumovsky” quartets. The final movement is a speeding fugal romp that was so cleanly articulated that when it was over you felt as if you had just had a ride on the world’s fastest roller coaster.

I have not had a chance to hear any of their Beethoven recordings, but if they are even half as good as this performance, they would certainly be worth owning. For more information on the Takács quartet, you can visit their website at [inactive 2/08].