Takacs' intimateendeavor

The ensemble is making its way through Beethoven's 16 arduous string quartets in a concert series at UCLA.

March 28, 2004|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

If the question is, why play Beethoven's complete string quartets as a six-concert cycle, then because they're there hardly seems like the correct answer. Yet performing these 16 daunting works in a single series can be compared to climbing Mt. Everest.

Like conducting Wagner's "Ring" cycle or playing all of Mozart's piano concertos, traversing Beethoven's string quartets is an endeavor to be remembered by. And lately, discerning ears have been noticing the Takacs Quartet, which this season is making its way through Beethoven's demanding corpus at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. The journey will conclude next Saturday and Sunday.

These musicians -- violinists Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz, violist Roger Tapping and cellist Andras Fejer -- are by no means the first to play all of Beethoven's string quartets as a cycle, nor will they be the last. But for the moment, they have staked a claim to music that no single ensemble can ever fully possess.

Their association with Beethoven began, humbly enough, at Middlebury College in Vermont in 1998, when they first played all the quartets in a single season. The following season, they repeated the feat in London and Paris. In 2001, in Sydney, Australia, they performed the entire cycle in three weeks, a schedule they plan to duplicate in New York and Baltimore in January. Last year, in Cleveland, they opted for the long view, beginning a three-year survey of this music, a pattern they intend to follow in Berkeley next year. In June, they are booked to take the opposite approach by presenting the cycle over 10 days in Aspen, Colo.

So why not six concerts in six days?

"I don't think I'd be up for that," says Dusinberre, the first violinist, calculating the physical toll as he, Tapping and Schranz unwind after a recent master class at UCLA where they coached student musicians. "The most civilized way to play them is over a season."

But playing the entire cycle too frequently, no matter how long the gap between concerts, also can prove exhausting. "You have to be careful how often you do it," Tapping says. "They all take a lot of work, and you have to really concentrate."

The Takacs (pronounced TOK-ahtch) generally plays three Beethoven quartets per program, and though that may not sound like much, "it's very tiring mentally," says Dusinberre, "because these quartets are so engaging."

A knotty fugue

It was Goethe, remarking on Beethoven's "Razumovsky" Quartets, who first likened the performance of a string quartet to a conversation among four rational people. Others have offered variations on his observation over the years, but its essential point remains: String quartets are musical discussions, not rants, unfolding at a deliberate but not rhetorical pace.

String quartets also possess an economy of scale that can make other musical forms, such as operas or symphonies, seem bloated. Critic Paul Griffiths made the point perfectly, in his book "The String Quartet: A History," when he wrote, "The bigness is all bigness of substance, not means."

Like the rest of Beethoven's oeuvre, his string quartets -- some known by nicknames ("Razumovsky," "Harp," "Serioso") but most identified solely by opus number -- are invariably categorized as early, middle or late. Modern scholarship has blunted the rigidity of this scheme, first codified by Wilhelm von Lenz in 1852, but the divisions retain their currency.

Though not necessarily embracing the notion, Griffiths has remarked that Beethoven "wrote the early quartets to challenge the past, the middle quartets to challenge the present and the late quartets to challenge the future." Yet such pigeonholing fails to acknowledge the wealth of musical invention each of these pieces contains.

The Takacs' two remaining concerts cull material from all three periods, but the most interesting item on the program is the concluding work, the Opus 130, with its original ending, the "Grosse Fugue" or "Great Fugue," which Beethoven later published separately as Opus 133 after his publisher persuaded him to compose a less taxing conclusion for the quartet.

Covering all bases, the Takacs played the Opus 130 with the revised ending at the beginning of its UCLA series in October. But revisiting the piece with the knotty fugue included will be the cycle's moment of truth.

In his acclaimed study "Beethoven: The Music and the Life," Lewis Lockwood refers to the multipart fugue as "a leviathan of 741 measures that dwarfs the [quartet's] preceding movements in weight, duration, level of difficulty and scope," adding, "its compositional scale is so large that we can compare it without exaggeration to the finale of the Ninth Symphony."

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