Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Late, Great, and in Orange County

March 22, 2012


The Takács Quartet is one of those fixtures of the classical music world that seems almost impervious to time. Even after 35 years and a handful of personnel changes, they remain one of the finest chamber music ensembles in the world. They returned to Southern California on Tuesday along with pianist Garrick Ohlsson on their current tour as guests of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County to the intimate Irvine Barclay Theater. The program was part of the organization’s “Beethoven: The Late Great” series revisiting the monumental music the composer produced in his final years, and the evening did include his String Quartet No. 14, Op.131. It was the first time I’ve heard the current roster of Takács play this piece since their much lauded recording of the Beethoven string quartets and subsequent appearances in Los Angeles nearly a decade ago. Little had changed musically with the seamless addition of violist Geraldine Walther to the combo, and no one went away disappointed. It was lean, muscular Beethoven, now in full Romantic bloom, enchanted with rhythm and touchingly lyrical. It’s easy to complain about the omnipresent programming of Beethoven’s music, but this performance provided all of its own justification.

The rest of the night was dedicated to the endlessly fascinating musical world of Shostakovich and the Piano Quintet in G minor with Ohlsson. The Quintet was composed in the halcyon days of the late 30s and early 40s when Shostakovich was on the rebound from his falling out with Stalin and his works were again warmly received by the powers-that-be even if they would sustain some outside criticism for the composer’s purported willingness to toe the party line a bit more artistically. Seventy years later, though, one wouldn’t mistake the music as having come from any other hand with its jarring combinations of military and carnivalesque elements. The opening Prelude and Lento was some of the most haltingly sad music I’ve heard played all year. The Takács players have the knack of delivering something that could be almost obscenely jocular but also knowingly weary at other times. Perhaps the only oddity here was that the Takács players and Ohlsson could be of two minds at moments. Ohlsson often went for a polished almost quintessentially classical feel, eschewing the temptation to deliver a poke in the ribs every now and then. But it may have been for the best, grounding the performance overall with some contrasting elements. The Takács players will continue their tour through the U.S., Europe, and Australia into the summer with appearance at Carnegie Hall next month, and if you haven’t caught up with them lately, now would be a great time.

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