The final concert of the Secrest Artist Series brought the internationally renowned string quartet, the Takács Quartet, to Wake Forest University’s Brendle Recital Hall on Thursday night for a wonderful evening of chamber music. Joining the quartet in the final number was the equally famous pianist, Marc-André Hamelin for a brilliant performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet.

The evening began with a mature quartet by Haydn, Op. 77, No. 1 in G, sometimes subtitled “Lobkowitz” in order to pay tribute to the Viennese man who commissioned the work.  According to the esteemed musicologist, Homer Ulrich, “In these quartets (the two Op. 77) the highest point of Haydn’s creative activity is reached. Hearing the works and knowing them is all that is needed; talking about them would be futile.” And indeed, the listener can hear absolute perfection in terms of form and structure and rhetorical communication. Which is to say that they have delighted audiences from the premiere to the performance Thursday night; the two Op. 77 quartets are among the crowning glories of the Classical Era.

One would be hard pressed to find better advocates for this quintessential elegance than the four musicians of the Takács Quartet — Edward Dusinberre (first violin), Károly Schranz (second violin), Geraldine Walther (viola), and András Fejér (cello).  The group was able to offer absolute precision, but always with good humor. 

The Takács is amazingly democratic — whoever has the main melodic material is the leader of the moment. In the Haydn, that tended to be the first violin and cello, but all four were presented with leadership roles in the String Quartet No.1 by Bartók that followed.

The six Bartók quartets represent some of the most original chamber music written in the 20th century. His First String Quartet, written in 1909, is a three-movement affair, beginning with a long Lento (which the composer described as “my funeral dirge”).  This is music of intense counterpoint, with canons and imitation abounding.  A faster second movement follows and the work concludes with a rhythmic finale. 

The melodic material absolutely permeates the entire texture, giving each musician a workout.  Each member of the Takács Quartet took to heart this task and dug into both the spirit and the letter of the composer’s intent. A lot of foreign music terrain is explored in this 30-minute composition, and the audience was fortunate to have such skilled explorers/musicians leading the way and illuminating the rarely traversed paths. The musicians offer an amazing palette of color — from quasi-violent bowing to delicate pizzicato. And each is so physically engaged with the music that they often seemed like seated dancers.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 was written during 1842, the composer’s “chamber music” year in which he wrote three string quartets, a piano quartet and the Op. 44.  There really is no precedent for the combination; neither Mozart nor Beethoven, Schumann’s primary music mentors, wrote for this combination of instruments. The Quintet is a bright and sunny four-movement work, part piano concerto, part chamber music. It is among the composer’s most frequently performed chamber composition, and for good reason. Good spirits abound, and there are a lot of great tunes sprinkled generously on each instrument.  

The piano part is certainly prominent through most of the proceedings, and Hamelin was a brilliant performer, with sparkling scales and hearty chords. The piano part sometimes threatened to overwhelm the strings, but the Takács redoubled their effort, and the end result was energetic brilliance and excitement. The slow march-like second movement was intense but tenderly performed. The Scherzo bubbled, and the sparkling effervescence of the Finale could scarcely be contained. The performance of this work helped serve as a warm up for the five musicians, who are preparing to record the work this May.

Brendle Recital Hall is a lively space, with fine acoustical features, which for the most part is a good thing.  However, this listener was dismayed that individuals in the audience got up and left in the middle of movements, and some folks talked during the music. A cell phone went off, thankfully between movements (“good timing” quipped first violinist Dusinberre). The noisy and fidgety audience offered background noise that was irritating and had to have been detrimental to the musician’s concentration.