Thursday, April 19, 2018

Discovering Dohnányi with the Takács Quartet

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the annual Shenson Chamber Series, presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP), came to a conclusion with a performance by the Takács Quartet, consisting of violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist  András Fejér. The ensemble made its SFP debut in 2010, and last night was its fifth visit. It will also be Schranz’ last appearance with the group here, because he will be retiring at the end of this month. (This will leave Fejér as the only founding member.)

This ensemble was founded in 1975 by four students at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, but they have not shown a particularly strong bias towards the music of Hungarian composers. Last night, however, the central work on the program was the second string quartet (Opus 15 in D-flat major) by Ernő Dohnányi. Dohnányi lived a long a full life and was productively active during the first half of the twentieth century, but his music has received relatively little attention.

When I was growing up, his Opus 25 “Variations on a Nursery Tune” received a fair amount of attention and was frequently cited as a prime example of music’s capacity for wit. His Opus 10 C major serenade for string trio also received attention for its presence in Jascha Heifetz’ repertoire. I have heard Opus 10 performed several times at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and I cannot remember the last time I heard even a recording of the Opus 25 variations.

1905 photograph of Ernő Dohnányi (photographer unknown, from Wikipedia, public domain)

The Opus 15 quartet was composed in 1906, when Dohnányi was teaching at the Hochschule in Berlin. By way of chronological reference, this was when Anton Webern was beginning his studies with Arnold Schoenberg. 1906 was also the year in which Schoenberg completed his Opus 9 chamber symphony and Schoenberg’s other pupil, Alban Berg, was producing a prodigious number of songs. As a Hungarian point of reference, Béla Bartók would not complete his first string quartet until 1908.

Last night’s performance of Dohnányi’s Opus 15 revealed the work as an energetic flow across three relatively short movements, each of which would flow easily across a diversity of emotional dispositions. It was not difficult to detect a variety of influences on the composer’s abilities to shape themes and express them rhetorically. Every now and then the high level of energy would recall the similar intensity from almost a century earlier in the chamber music of Felix Mendelssohn. Dohnányi in Berlin may not have been as adventurous as his contemporaries in Vienna, but the Takács players demonstrated that he had his own distinctive voice, whose high spirits would eventually be dampened as the twentieth century grew dimmer in successive decades.

If there were any suggestions of Mendelssohn in Dohnányi’s quartet, they reverberated into the second half of the program with the performance of that earlier composer’s final string quartet, Opus 80 in F minor. Mendelssohn was a composer driven by intense energy. Cellist Bonnie Hampton once told her master class students that he was always burning his candle at both ends, and it is easy to imagine that Mendelssohn knew there was little left of that candle when he was working on Opus 80. Fortunately, the Takács players knew how to capture the urgency of the composer’s personal situation without overplaying it. The result was that the attentive listener could appreciate not only the intensity of the darkness but also the solid craft behind establishing that darkness.

Somewhat weaker was the opening selection of the program, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 387 quartet in G major. This is the first of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn, and there is a good chance that they played it together with their fellow quartet members, violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and cellist Johann Baptist Wanhal. One can almost appreciate the collegial rhetoric that Mozart wrote into this score, and that sense of a string quartet as a gathering of close colleagues is still with us today. (One has only to read Dusinberre’s personal memoir of working with the the ensemble to appreciate that collegiality.)

Sadly, that sense of colleagues enjoying each other’s presence never came across in the Mozart performance. There was almost a sense that the group knew this music “all too well” (the phrase used by Leporello when Don Giovanni’s “house band” starts to play music from The Marriage of Figaro). There was no doubt that all of the notes were in their proper place, but this was music whose social qualities were as significant as the music ones. Without a sense of committed socialization, the performance became little more than a dutiful account of all of those notes.

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