There’s no checklist of the elements that make up a good musical performance, but one thing I find myself focusing on more and more these days is delight. It’s easy for a musician to lose sight of delight, particularly in great works about serious things. But even serious music is often delightful. We listen, in part, for those moments when a score smiles unexpectedly and frees itself from the earth’s gravity.
And if I had to pin down just what it was that made the Takacs Quartet’s performance at the Library of Congress on Tuesday night quite so wonderful, I’d call it delight. Not that it was a particularly funny or light-hearted program: Schubert’s “Rosamunde” quartet (his 13th); Benjamin Britten’s coltish, ardent, sprawling first quartet; and Shostakovich’s piano quintet, with the marvelous pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. And not that the musicians made light of it. But they did keep something in reserve, so that rather than merely pouring their hearts into the notes, they left themselves, and their listeners, enough room to savor them. So when Edward Dusinberre, the first violinist, floated a clear line over the warmer sound of Karoly Schranz’s second violin in the Schubert, there was an extra frisson to the “aha!” moment.
The Takacs sound is like a fine wine: warm, rich and light, and improving with age. It’s wrapped in a warm slightly fuzzy haze, associated with the group’s Central European roots; it was founded in Budapest in 1975. Only two of the original members, Schranz and the cellist Andras Fejer, are still with the group, and they share a sound philosophy, or at least a kind of burr to their playing that contrasts with the cleaner sound of Dusinberre and the violist, Geraldine Walther. The way that these four distinct sounds blend and balance offers an object lesson in the art of quartet playing, a constant balance between individuals and the whole. At the start of the third movement of the Schubert, the cello let loose with a dark, almost raucous sound, and the three other players quickly worked to massage the movement back into elegance.
The program partook of some of the group’s spirit: three sharply contrasting pieces that all had a lot to say to each other and that blended into a wonderful evening. The Schubert was a rich pleasure; the Britten was something of a revelation. I didn’t know the piece, and wasn’t prepared for the burst of eager energy, with contrasts of timbre, one mood piled atop another, and hints of the composer Britten was to become peeking through dark inchoate swirls of youthful talent. The first movement veered from high string harmonics to a folk-like dance, hints both of Britten’s contemporaries (I kept hearing Prokofiev) and of the European tradition he followed, linking the other two pieces on the program. The third movement offered foretastes of “Peter Grimes,” the breakthrough opera he wrote only a few years after this 1941 work: big aching wistful surges that Dusinberre, in spoken remarks, linked to one of Britten’s perennial themes, the sea.
The Shostakovich quintet was written in the same year as the Britten and has some of the same dark young brilliant energy, but it is, typically of its creator, more sardonic. It opens with a duet for the piano and viola that sounds like two people talking past each other, though Hamelin, a brilliant player, beautifully fit in with the Takacs’s sound and intensity, driving with them to the boundary between music and noise with an insistent, biting, repeating note. This piece had more humor than the other two on the program, but no one played it to be funny. Delight, rather, came in moments like the end of the final movement, an unobtrusive “aha!” moment when all four string players suddenly merged seamlessly into a single, breathing whole.