Mahler could not resist orchestrating Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden. Like his symphonies, it’s mercurial, intensely dramatic and derives much of its melodic beauty from originating in song.
Fine as Mahler’s homage is, it sacrifices the clarity and immediate interplay of the quartet form which, in Goethe’s phrase, lets us profit from a fascinating conversation between four people. The Takács Quartet used a wide dynamic range and their grip on the audience was as firm as their grip on the music. This was a magnificent performance which combined intense concentration with rhetorical flair.
Haydn’s String Quartet Op.74 No.3 is nicknamed The Rider who, given the comically braying opening theme, was not riding a thoroughbred. The Takács Quartet is as adept with Haydn’s pawky humour as they are with high drama, and smiling was irresistible at their handling of the finale’s nod-and-a-wink jokes. Shostakovich’s second quartet, written in 1944, is a bleak requiem for his war-ravaged country yet the Takács never lapsed into monochrome playing, even in a work of the most subdued musical palette.