Beethoven: Takács Excels In Quartets; Book Illuminates

Last season, the Takacs presented complete six-concert Beethoven quartet cycles in London’s Wigmore Hall, at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

BEETHOVEN: Complete Quartets (recorded 2002 & 2004). Takács Quartet. (7 CDs + Blu-ray Audio Disc Version + DVD.) Bonus DVD contains performances of Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op. 33, No. 3, The Bird; Schubert: String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, Death and the Maiden; Beethoven: String Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1, Razumovsky (recorded 2005), and a documentary Introducing the Takács Quartet. Decca 483 1317.

Dusinberre, Edward. Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – In my lifetime, I have given myself the task of listening to recordings of all the Beethoven string quartets on three occasions; each time, I was inspired by hearing some memorable live performances by the Amadeus Quartet, the Emerson and most recently, by the Takács. The first time through (with the Amadeus) was an almost life-changing exercise in music appreciation; I began to really understand how Beethoven had moved from the Haydn-Mozart influence in the Op. 18 quartets through the fully mature and characteristically Beethovenian middle period works like the three Razumovskys to the unbelievably complex and forward-looking late quartets. Listening chronologically, scores in hand, to the Amadeus make this journey was unforgettable.

Years later, experiencing this music and this journey with the Emerson was equally enriching, although perhaps on a more intellectual level. The Emerson Quartet brought extraordinary precision to their performances but perhaps less old world warmth than the Amadeus. Finally, and most recently, I dove into the quartets once again with the Takács, a group that began in 1975 as all Hungarian but, by 2002-04, when these recordings were made, had become half Hungarian and half British. The Takács performances have it all. And I was able to delve even deeper into the music, thanks to a recent book about the quartets and how to play them, written by the group’s first violinist, Edward Dusinberre.

For anyone even remotely interested in the Beethoven string quartets, string quartets in general, or simply how music can enrich one’s life, I highly recommend following my example: buy the scores and study them, buy the book and read it, and listen to the music. Then listen again and again. You won’t regret it.

The Takács Quartet, founded in 1975 by four students at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Gabor Takács-Nagy as leader, won several international competitions, toured widely, and recorded for Decca. In 1983 it became quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a position it still holds today, after more than 34 years. Group leader Takács-Nagy left in 1994 and was replaced by Dusinberre, a 24-year-old British violinist then studying with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. Violist Gabor Ormai died of cancer in 1994 and his place was taken by British violist, Roger Tapping. After the completion of the recorded Beethoven cycle, Tapping left the quartet  for Juilliard and was replaced by Geraldine Walther, an American. Since 2006, the Takács Quartet has recorded regularly for Hyperion.

There have been other books written about the Beethoven quartets, as well as about playing them – most notably, Inside Beethoven’s Quartets (Harvard University Press, 2008), an invaluable guide to all these pieces, written by musicologist Lewis Lockwood and the members of the Juilliard String Quartet. The text includes annotated scores of Op. 18, No. 1, Op. 59, No. 1, and Op. 130.

Dusinberre’s new book, somewhat different in its approach, is equally valuable, giving us the perspective of the leader of a distinguished quartet as he and his colleagues wrestle with preparing performances of the Beethoven quartets at the highest level. Dusinberre shows us how difficult it is for four musicians to interpret the notes on the page, taking us behind the notes, back to Beethoven and his times. He tells us how Beethoven wrote the music and about the performers who grappled with the composer himself in preparing the first performances. Violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) had the privilege of leading his quartet in many of those premieres, but also felt the wrath of the composer when things didn’t go well. Beethoven was writing music not only for them, but also for the future; hence, the title of Dusinberre’s book based on Beethoven’s own words about the Op. 59 quartets – “They are not for you but for a later age!”

Dusinberre’s description of the problems facing the Takács in preparing the notoriously difficult late quartets is particularly illuminating. There is a long discussion of the slow movement from Op. 132, subtitled by Beethoven Heilger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy Song of Thanks by a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode). The “convalescent” was, of course, Beethoven himself, recovering from abdominal problems and taking the waters in Baden in 1825.

Dusinberre rightly describes this 15-minute slow movement as “one of the most challenging movements in the string quartet repertoire.” After an unsuccessful performance of the work in Caen, France in 2014, the members of the quartet tried to figure out what went wrong. But each one of them seemed to have a different opinion. They agreed that the tempo for this movement was not right. They agreed that it should be very slow – there needs to be a feeling of repose – but if taken too slowly, there is no pulse at all; it merely becomes lethargic. The players tried to come to an agreement about what to do. In addition to discussing possible solutions with his colleagues, Dusinberre listened to recordings, and the group gave more performances of the piece to test changes. He also went back to Beethoven’s letters from this period to try to understand what the composer had in mind. Months later, as they were breakfasting together before rehearsing Op. 132 for a concert in Paris, they found that they were finally in agreement. Dusinberre’s comment on this breakthrough is both somewhat sarcastic and insightful:

Even after twenty years of working in the quartet I was surprised by the sudden progression from disagreement to consensus – perhaps we should eat breakfast together more frequently. Between our conversation and the rehearsal thirty-six hours later, an unspoken accommodation had been reached… the mix of dissonant musical opinions rubbing against each other onstage in Caen was enough to encourage a modification of positions.

Dusinberre is even more troubled by the Grosse Fuge, Beethoven’s original last movement for the String Quartet Op. 130, and he devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of it.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Not surprisingly, Schuppanzigh and his quartet found this music almost beyond their considerable competence. One can imagine the pressure they felt as Beethoven himself, by this time almost totally deaf, attended their rehearsals, sitting between the first and second violinists so as to hear the music as best he could. According to second violinist Karl Holz, Beethoven often broke into peals of laughter as Schuppanzigh struggled with the first violin part.

But even at this late date, Edward Dusinberre still considers the piece both physically and emotionally challenging, writing:

We have never yet come unstuck in a concert, but being far out of my comfort zone during a performance often means the fugue’s motifs continue to whirl in my head late into the night, eroding sanity.

The Takács Quartet has given us a very distinguished reading of the complete Beethoven string quartets. One has the impression that hours of research, thought, and discussion have gone into the playing of every bar, and yet the performances have an expressive range and spontaneity that holds one’s attention from the first bar to the last of each quartet. The finale from Op. 59, No. 3 is as spectacularly headlong as one could wish, and the Cavatina from Op. 130 as heartbreaking as it could possibly be, especially in the devastating “Beklemmt” passage. Nearly every movement from every quartet is a highlight.

It was the excellent Léner Quartet, another string quartet originating in Budapest, that made the first complete recording of the Beethoven quartets in the 1930s. More integral versions have followed from the Budapest, Vegh, Guarneri, Alban Berg, Amadeus, Emerson, Orford, and so many others. There will never be a “definitive” recording of the complete quartets; there are simply too many perfectly good ways of playing these pieces, each of them valid realizations of what Beethoven wrote. But speaking personally, the Takács Beethoven recordings are among the ones I will return to for both pleasure and enrichment for years to come.

It should be noted that this new Decca boxed set includes the Takács Beethoven performances not only on seven CDs, but also on one Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc. This last disc can only be played on Blu-ray equipment. Is it worth it? Absolutely. In addition to getting more than 8 ½ hours of music on one disc, the listener is able to experience sound quality far superior to what can be contained on even the highest-quality CD.

Finally, this set includes a 153-minute DVD containing an excellent documentary about the Takács Quartet, and introductions and complete performances of three major works. These performances were recorded at Hopetoun House, Scotland, a manor house that could be mistaken for a nicely appointed room in a palace in Vienna – in other words, an ideal place to play chamber music. The performances are wonderful, with Haydn’s Bird quartet an unalloyed delight. It would be difficult to imagine this great music played with more control, humor or joy.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for,, and