★★★★½ Bold, energetic performances of works old and new.

City Recital Hall, Sydney
August 28, 2017

With the opening chord of Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major Op. 77 No 2 – the composer’s final completed quartet, commissioned by Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz (who commissioned Beethoven’s first set in the genre) – the Takács Quartet brought bold energy and a vibrant earthy sound to City Recital Hall. With an organic sense of ensemble, the quartet injected loads of excitement into Haydn’s Allegro moderato first movement, revelling in a loose, friendly push-and-pull between the players – the kind of edge-of-the-seat freedom that only tends to come off with an ensemble that’s been playing together for a long time.

The group was founded in 1975 in Budapest and despite a relocation to Boulder, Colorado, and a few personnel changes (second violin Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér are original members), the Quartet has been playing in its current line-up for more than ten years – and it shows.

Fejér’s cello was a low growl in the grittier moments of the first movement before bouncing forward to propel the rest of the ensemble in the second, the musicians snapping at each other’s heels. Fejér’s complex timbre was reflected in first violin Edward Dusinberre’s shimmering high register. The Andante flowed along pleasantly before the opening chord of the finale – a foreshadowing of the rich chords that kick off the Beethoven Quartet at the end of the programme – launched the quartet into the bright Vivace assai.

At the centre of this programme – and common to both of the programmes Takács brought to this tour – was Carl Vine’s new String Quartet, Child’s Play, which was commissioned by outgoing Musica Viva Chairman Michael Katz and his wife Frédérique. The work is his Sixth in this genre and the second he’s written for this ensemble.

From the quietly dissonant opening of Play, the quartet draws on the behaviour and moods of children to create a charmingly uplifting – though never saccharine – suite of movements. Play quickly gathered momentum, with moments of tempestuous drama and folk-like dancing. The second movement, Concentration, opened with the kind of fiery, all-encompassing focus of children absorbed in a task before settling into something more meditative with violist Geraldine Walther’s warm tone supporting harmonics from Dusinberre. Friendship was full of spikey energy, while the fourth movement, Sleep, was a slow movement whose phrases expanded and contracted like the breath of a sleeping infant. The final movement, Running, was full of athletic energy, with a touch of Reich or Nyman in the motoring, repetitive gestures, the first violin part soaring over the locomotive trio.

The Takács Quartet brought a smooth, lush sound to the opening chords of Beethoven’s wide-ranging Op. 127 String Quartet (the first of the Late Quartets), though when the same figure returned later in the movement they were given a more aggressive treatment. Dusinberre gave his violin figures, splitting off from the chords an improvisatory flourish. His sonorous vibrato was a highlight in the second movement, with rich intensity in Fejér’s countermelody to offset it. The tempo pressed forward in the slow movement, and if this allowed a little less time for reflection and deep immersion, it made for a lively and engaging performance. The ensemble brought a snappy brightness to the Scherzando vivace. The finale was spirited, rollicking fortes with some beautiful moments when viola and cello crossed over, their timbres mingling.

For this, their ninth Australian tour for Musica Viva, the Takács Quartet brought style and flair in spades, with breezy, energetic performances of old and new works alike. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing them again before too long.