The Takács String Quartet returned to the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Series on Tuesday night, joined by pianist Garrick Ohlsson, for a program focused on “late-stage” chamber music of Haydn, Elgar and Bartók.
The Takács is widely considered to be one of the best quartets around. It was founded in 1975 by four students at the Liszt Academy in Budapest; cellist András Fejér is the only original member. First violinist Edward Dusinberre is British; violist Geraldine Walther and second violinist Harumi Rhodes are both Americans. A cosmopolitan point of view is certainly one of the quartet’s strengths, but perhaps even more remarkable is the alacrity with which the newer members have become seamlessly integrated into the ensemble. Their rich, fruity, yet lean sound, unanimity of attack and discerning intelligence remain consistent.
Haydn’s Quartet, Op. 76, No. 1, written after of his two phenomenally successful trips to London, is among the last handful of his 68 string quartets. Witty, urbane and always entertaining, the spirit of this musical conversation was captured with stylish ease. At the end of the slow movement, where a serene chorale is repeatedly interrupted by more mundane discourse before finally establishing a luminous calm, an air of satisfied contentment seemed to settle over the audience.
Bartók’s Sixth Quartet was his last composition before emigrating from war-torn Hungary to the United States in 1940. Beginning with a lonely viola solo, the Takács created a compelling atmosphere that seemed to contemplate and eventually mock despair without succumbing to it.
By almost any measure, Ohlsson is one of the great American pianists. His lightning instincts and liquid touch added another dimension to an autumnal, almost bittersweet performance of Elgar’s 1919 Piano Quintet, one of his last works.