The Takács String Quartet’s Beethoven Cycle

Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets are well known as some of his most forward-thinking works. From his early quartets (Opus 18, no. 1-6)  demonstrating his mastery of the form to his colossal and complex late quartets (Ops 1278, 130-133, 135), he pushed the boundaries of the form, making it into what it is today. Conveniently for performance cycles, Beethoven wrote 17 (when separately counting the Große Fuge Op. 133, technically originally meant to be a finale attached to no. 13), and they evenly range throughout his musical periods, meaning a series can have a taste of multiple periods in each concert.

The Takács String Quartet of Hungary is an acclaimed quartet, forty-two years in age, which is performing the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle, all 17 string quartets, at Princeton University’s 123rd season of concerts (six sessions, throughout the 2016-2017 school year). I recently attended their fourth program, on January 19. They performed:

Before the concert, there was a lecture by Princeton music professor Scott Burnham about a specific element in the string quartets. Several in the series had similar lectures, and this one focused on Beethoven’s slow movements. This was most likely because this program’s three quartets have some of Beethoven’s greatest slow movements. Although I enjoyed the lecture and its discussion of said slow movements, it felt a bit like a spoiler. One of the best parts of a classical performance of an unfamiliar piece to me is how it unfolds and shifts, revealing itself as you listen, especially in Beethoven’s heavily motivic works. So listening to a lecture (including recordings of key transitions) before seeing the performance can sometimes spoil the wonderful surprise you get when, for instance, the third variation of the second movement of String Quartet #12 shits from A-flat to the distant key of E through use of a single half-step. I would have probably enjoyed the lecture more had it been at a separate event, or after the concert instead of before. Nevertheless, it was still fascinating and I don’t regret attending.

The performances were excellent, but the Takács quartet has been around so long it would be more surprising had they not been. Their style is often heavily emotional, and you can see that they are deep into the music and having the time of their lives. It was as much fun to watch the performers as it was to hear the music, and when you love Beethoven as much as I do, that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The seating was interestingly arranged – as part of what they called “Beethoven Up Close,” the balcony was closed, and seats were placed on the stage, so that the audience (through a system of open seating) surrounded the performers. This was a nice idea, but it had the minor drawback that any coughs, shuffles, or dropped items on the stage were heavily amplified from the acoustics in the auditorium.

All in all, it has been a fantastic series, and the oddities in seating are more than made up for by the sheer joy of the performers and their fantastic performances. Although this particular post focuses on their most recent program, I’ve been to three of them, and will be attending the final two as well. I highly recommend the series to anybody who wants to experience the heights that a string quartet can reach. The March 15th (with “Beethoven Up Close” seating) and 16th (with a pre-concert lecture) still have available tickets!

*Yes, it’s labeled no. 3. It was published third in Op. 18, but he had completed it before any of the other five in the opus. Opus numbers can be complicated for people who don’t know a lot about classical music, so as an analogy, remember that the Beatles recorded Abbey Road last, but released Let It Be after Abbey Road.

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