On Wednesday, June 19, just three days into its eight-week season, the Music Academy of the West hosted a superb early recital as part of a new string quartet development program. Sixteen string players were preselected and divided into four quartets; they arrived a week early and immediately got to work with the fine coaches of the Takács Quartet. The quartet format, string players will assure one, is extremely difficult. There’s a lot that must be right — the highly exposed single parts must be played well; a consensus in interpretation must be achieved and so must that often-elusive sense of blend. Still, these intrepid early birds could not have asked for better conditions for study, arriving days before the hundreds of other fellows and thus taking advantage of the calm before the storm.
To face a different kind of storm — for there was plenty of agitation in the selections played. The evening was weighted toward the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, with three of the groups playing challenging movements from his string quartets No. 4, 5, and 6. But who better to provide guidance on Bartók than the members of Takács, a group formed in 1975 by students at Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest? Their authoritative recordings of Bartók’s six string quartets merited a 1998 Gramophone Award, and their regular collaborations with the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás probe Bartók’s roots. Academy Fellows’ and their mentors’ labors paid off, rewarding the audience with fresh, confident renderings of Bartók’s dark harmonies, complex textures, and savage drama.
The final group finished the evening with the last two movements of Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3 quartet in sunny C major, keying a delighted audience back to the pending summer and succulent musical feasts yet to come.