Changes in the membership of a string quartet can be difficult, because it disrupts the delicate musical chemistry so important to an ensemble’s viability. That is especially true when it happens to be a top-flight international ensemble like the Takács Quartet. When Roger Tapping, the group’s violist since 1995, announced he was stepping down, an extensive search ensued. The group eventually settled on Geraldine Walther, principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony for 28 years, and she joined the quartet in September 2005.
Of course, some big questions remained. While Walther certainly had superb credentials and seemed at the outset to be the right pick, how would she work out once the group settled into its taxing, almost non-stop schedule of rehearsals and touring? She has proven to be an ideal fit, with the ensemble taking right up where it left off and enjoying even greater success, including its receipt in May of the Wigmore Hall Medal. The honor recognizes significant classical-music artists who have had strong associations with the esteemed London concert venue.
Indeed, things have gone so well for the Takács Quartet that first violinist Edward Dusinberre seemed a bit surprised at the reminder that nine years had passed since Walther’s arrival. “When you’re in the thick of playing quartets, it’s amazing how one doesn’t really reflect on those sort of things,” he said. “We’ve done over 10 CDs with her, several [Ludwig van] Beethoven cycles, and in the last couple of years, 10 [Béla] Bartók cycles. You’re aware in the first two or three years, obviously, that you’re re-learning repertoire together and adjusting to each other, but after that, it’s not really something we’ve thought about.”
So after nearly 10 years in its current configuration, the Takács will visit Orchestra Hall for a concert Oct. 16 that will include a collaboration with acclaimed Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Based at the University of Colorado-Boulder, the quartet is a regular visitor to Chicago, often hosted by the University of Chicago Presents series. It made two appearances at the Ravinia Festival in August, and it returns this time under the auspices of Symphony Center Presents.
The quartet always looks forward to playing in Orchestra Hall, even though it is much larger than a more typically intimate chamber-music venue. “There’s kind of an excitement just in playing in such a venue that has such a history and association with the orchestra,” he said. “And on the stage, it’s actually very comfortable to play. You can hear each other well, and you get quite a lot of encouragement from the acoustic. So as large halls go, it’s actually one of the best. It’s much nicer to play in, for example, than Avery Fisher Hall [in New York City]. You just have to adjust playing a little bit to the bigger spaces and not rush through things.”
The history of the quartet dates to 1975, when three students who were friends at the respected Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary, began playing string trios together. After a year, they decided to turn the group into a string quartet, a combination for which considerably more repertoire exists. They tried one player who did not work out, and then Gabor Takács-Nagy, the group’s namesake and founding first violinist, turned to Karoly Schranz, who has been the second violinist since. The fledgling group won its first in a series of international competitions in 1977, taking first prize and the critic’s prize at the International String Quartet Competition in Evian, France.
In 1982, the Takács appeared at the University of Colorado as part of its first American tour. The four players felt an immediate kinship with Boulder, a college town nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains near Denver, and returned for a residency the following year. The ensemble has been connected to the school ever since, with the quartet members and their families defecting from Hungary in 1986 and then moving to Boulder. Only two of the original Hungarian members remain with the quartet (Dusinberre is English and Walther is American), but its playing still retains elements of the warmth and refinement associated with its Central European heritage.
Today, the Takács would make just about any expert’s list of the top five string quartets worldwide, an assessment that was cemented a decade or so ago with the release of its complete recordings of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets. These works span the composer’s lifetime and stand as the most profound and emotionally wide-ranging musical statements created for the instrumental combination. In 2005, the ensemble’s recordings devoted to the composer’s late quartets won the Disc of the Year from BBC Music Magazine and a Gramophone Award, among other honors, and earlier releases in the set collected a Grammy Award and Chamber Music of America Award.
Under contract with the Hyperion label since 2006, the Takács continues to record regularly, releasing an album of Britten’s three string quartets in November 2013 and another in spring 2013 featuring Brahms’ viola quartets with violist Lawrence Power. In May 2015, Hamelin and the foursome are planning to record Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, and Franck’s little-heard Piano Quintet — an unusual pairing. (Typically, Debussy’s lone quartet is coupled with Ravel’s only such work in the form.) The ensemble’s program in Chicago, which also includes Haydn’s Quartet No. 50 in B-Flat Major, Op. 64, No. 3, is the first in a series of concerts in which it will join Hamelin on the two works in preparation for the upcoming recording session.
“César Franck is not thought of as being tremendously French, and at the same time, the Debussy [quartet] is actually, I should maybe not use the word ‘Germanic,’ but it’s certainly very full-blooded and a very romantic piece,” Dusinberre said. “And although it has its Impressionistic textures, I think the character of the music is very robust a lot of the time. So we thought the two of them would be very interesting together.”
The quartet has worked frequently with Hamelin, beginning with their November 2009 release of an album that included Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, and continuing last season with a string of concerts in the United States featuring Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57. “He’s a phenomenal pianist,” Dusinberre said. “Nothing seems to be difficult for him at all, and he’s got a really individual voice and he’s extremely easy to work with — very kind of curious. He comes into the rehearsal space not at all set in his ways. It’s quite hard to find both the musical things you admire but also someone who’s easy and fun on the road. He just kind of takes things in stride and always plays really well.”
While the Takács long ago secured an important place in modern chamber-music history, many other string quartets are coming into the fold, such as the Danish String Quartet. It won first prize at the London International String Quartet Competition in 2009 and joined the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center three years later. Dusinberre is a fan of the French-based Quatuor Ébène, which released its first recording in 2006 to wide praise. “I loved listening to a Mozart recording [‘Dissonances,’ 2011] of theirs recently,” he said. “It’s very dramatic and the dynamic contrasts are very good, and it’s just very thoughtful playing. You might think, ‘Ah, Mozart dissonance, who needs another recording of that?’ But it kind of confirms that as long as people have a really strong voice, then, absolutely, there is a place for it.”
Dusinberre thinks the arrival of such new talent speaks to the continuing vibrancy of the field. “It’s good for the health of the string-quartet business if you can see plenty of young, thriving quartets. That suggests that there are a market for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Such up-and-coming groups could, of course, be viewed as competition to the Takács, but the violinist doesn’t see it that way. “What we’ve always focused on are how things are among the four of us, in terms of whether we feel satisfied with what we’re doing and what we can improve,” he said. “That keeps us fully busy, and that’s something we can control and work on.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.