According to my archives, I have not written about the Takács Quartet since the release of the Dmitri Shostakovich album in April of 2015. At that time the ensemble still had two of its founding members, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér, performing with first violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther. On their latest album, which will be released one week from today, Schranz has passed his “founder’s baton” to Harumi Rhodes; and violist Richard O’Neill has replaced Walther. As many will have expected, Amazon.com has created a Web page for processing pre-orders.
Cover of the latest Takács Quartet album (courtesy of PIAS)
The album is divided roughly evenly between two composers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (British) and Antonín Dvořák (Czech). Both of them made “professional” visits to the United States. Dvořák made the move in 1892 to become the Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, based in New York City. Coleridge-Taylor never worked in the United States; but he made three tours to promote his orchestral compositions in 1904, 1906, and 1910.
Where the music itself is concerned, the Takács players made the somewhat bold move to represent each of these composers with a piece that was completed in the same year, 1895. The album begins with Coleridge-Taylor’s Opus 5, entitled Fantasiestücke. That, of course, was a familiar “category” in the nineteenth century; and, in this particular case, it explores five different structural forms: “Prelude,” “Serenade,” “Humoresque,” “Minuet and Trio,” and “Dance.” This is followed by Dvořák’s Opus 106 quartet in G major, one of his last string quartets. (Like Opus 106, Opus 105 was composed in 1895.) The album then concludes with Dvořák’s B40a, an Andante appassionato in A minor, which was the original version for the third movement of the Opus 12 quartet (also in A minor).
This album can best be appreciated for the features that distinguish Dvořák from Coleridge-Taylor. One gets the impression that the Opus 106 quartet was more in the players’ “comfort zone.” This should not surprise anyone. To paraphrase an old New York advertising slogan, you do not have to be Czech to get into the spirit of Dvořák’s chamber music, particularly his string quartets. While Coleridge-Taylor may have structured his Opus 5 movements around familiar forms, his rhetoric was far from retrospective, which may explain why the New Yorkers that experienced any of his music were not shy in calling him the “African Mahler.”
To be fair, however, that epithet does not really apply to Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber music, given how little chamber music Gustav Mahler composed! I would argue, instead, that Coleridge-Taylor found a way to establish and distinguish his own voice, establishing a distinction that Dvořák may never have entertained. Instead, his listeners seemed to like being charmed by listening to Native American tunes expressed with a Czech accent! In that context, the new Takács album is probably best approached for breadth of diversity; and, within the scope of that breadth, I count myself among those curious about what else Coleridge-Taylor composed.