Fab Four from Budapest: Takacs takes on Debussey, Brahms and Shostokovich in Louisville debut

Jan 23, 2007 at 8:56 pm
The Takacs String Quartet: performs at U of L’s Chamber Music Society series Sunday afternoon.
The Takacs String Quartet: performs at U of L’s Chamber Music Society series Sunday afternoon.
Kind of sounds like the Beatles: Four lads form a band and become music stars.
But instead of Liverpool, the hometown is Budapest. And the band these four Hungarian lads began in 1975 was the Takacs String Quartet. Three decades later, it is riding the crest of a classical music wave of fame, which brings it to Louisville’s shores Sunday. The Takacs Quartet performs at University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall as part of the Chamber Music Society series. The performance is one of 14 concerts the group will perform in the United States as part of a three-continent, eight-nation tour that began last fall in Japan and ends this summer in Europe.

Now based in Boulder, Colo., Takacs combines its touring schedule, a residency at the University of Colorado and summer teaching gigs in Aspen, Colo., and Santa Barbara, Calif., with extensive studio recording time. The group has just released a new Schubert CD, with a disc of Brahms quartets due out later this season. Its all-time top hit is a seven-CD set of the Beethoven string quartet cycle that earned the group a Grammy.

Of course, comparing a string quartet with a rock group might be a stretch. But not so much in Hungary.

Cellist Andras Fejer is an original member of the quartet. He and fellow Budapest boys Gabor Takacs-Nagy, Karoly Schranz and Gabor Ormani founded the Takacs Quartet. In recent years, Takacs-Nagy and Ormani have been succeeded by Americans Edward Dusinberre and Geraldine Walther.

Fejer says forming a chamber music fab four was a natural aspiration for a boy who grew up in a musical family, then plunged into chamber music with school chums.

“We were classmates in a special musical high school, and then, as we entered the Liszt Academy in Budapest, we decided to give it a serious try,” recalled Fejer. “We had gotten to the right point at the academy, and forming the quartet was a natural follow-up of our experiences.”

In Budapest, starting a string quartet might be as natural as piecing together a rock band in Liverpool — and certainly serious business. After all, the city is the namesake of the famous Budapest String Quartet.

Which brings a muffled chuckle from Fejer.

Did we say something wrong?

“There are other quartets equally famous in Europe,” said Fejer, politely. “Let’s just state that the Budapest Quartet, as you know it, started out as four Hungarians in Budapest. As they emigrated, they went through this metamorphosis that at the end, none of them were Hungarians.”


But the cellist slides smoothly from that slippery string.

“Yes,” he continued, “there is a richness in Central Europe of great quartets. It is a fountainhead from which you could learn — and be humble.”

Being born into it doesn’t hurt. And it can help in interpreting the string quartets of 20th-century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.

“It’s certainly an advantage,” said the cellist. “Other nationalities are playing very good Bartok quartets. But there are dictions and phrasing problems in Bartok’s folk music, which, unfortunately, cannot just be learned if you are not a Hungarian and haven’t grown up from childhood singing these songs.”

Important, too, is time. An aging process, if you will. Fejer said recording the 16 Beethoven quartets was, for example, a four-year process.

“First,” Fejer said, “you learn each piece. You study it and play it until you have an overview. Then you let it rest, like some great wine. Go away and do something else. Then you start the whole process again, relearning the piece and playing it more until it is like a living organism. As it gels, it takes different shapes and organizations.”

The Beethoven cycle demanded great focus from the players, said Fejer.

“It is just the highest pinnacle of the musical literature, and playing at that level you are filled with intense energy.”

Sunday, the Takacs String Quartet will perform works by Debussey, Brahms and Shostokovich — all of which, Fejer said, are group favorites.

He described the Debussy they will perform as a piece akin to “a young man full and hot-blooded with extreme expressability and romance,” which will complement the highly romantic “Brahms Quartet No. 2.”

The cellist measured his words as he described the “Shostakovich Quartet No. 11”: “It is the usual Shostakovich palate of longing,” he said. “Bleak — hopeless outlook — parody — sour parody — an utter, out-of-this-world beauty.”

No rioting. And try to not to kill yourself later

“The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre Du Printemps),” a landmark work by Igor Stravinsky that was initially greeted by a near riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913, headlines a concert by the Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Ogle Center at IU Southeast.

Many in the audience at the Paris opening yelled at the performers and jeered the accompanying dancers, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky.

Stravinsky, himself, left the theater in disgust. The composer was particularly upset that the uproar began before the performance started.

“I have never again been that angry,” he wrote some years later. “The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance.”

“The Rite of Spring” is long since accepted, but it still has a wild edge about it. And beyond the yelling, the story goes that in the days that followed the Paris premiere, three people who had been in the audience that night committed suicide.

Also on the program is Serge Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, featuring soloist Piotr Zukiewicz.

The IU orchestra, based in Bloomington at the IU Jacobs Music School, is participating in IUS’ ongoing Moveable Feast of the Arts Initiative. Admission is $5 or free for all IUS students and faculty, and students under 18.

Contact the writer at [email protected]