The Takács Quartet’s roots in Bartok’s string quartets run deep. Founded in 1975, the foursome, originally all Hungarians, learned Bartok’s music with the violinist Zoltán Székely, the composer’s close friend. Its two recordings of the quartets are excellent, and quite different from one another. This season they are touring all six, spread over two concerts. The Boston cycle began on Thursday with the odd-numbered quartets.
Conventional wisdom holds that there are two schools of playing this music: the “modernist” school, which emphasizes the forward-looking aspects of Bartok’s language, and a more “Romantic,” less astringent style. I am increasingly skeptical that this neat division, if it ever existed, does now. This music is too familiar, too much in our ears, to admit of such easy binaries.
If the distinction does exist, the Takács’ brilliant and energetic performances transcended it entirely. Everything they did had a kind of melodic sweep to it. Even in the compact Third Quartet, their sound was warm enough to make that piece’s fearsomely opaque textures inviting. But the Takács — violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér — also plays with complete clarity, so that each unusual sound effect materializes. Parts of the Third sounded almost lighthearted, but its coda had an edgy intensity that made it sound almost dangerous.
What the Takács projects most of all is a mastery of and almost ease with these pieces, the product of the decades of combined experience of these four musicians. Each quartet unfolded in a way that seemed to make perfect sense without sacrificing the music’s sheer excitement. Perhaps the best example was the First Quartet, often treated as a sort of apprenticeship for the advances that would follow. Not here: The First came off as a work of muscular invention and physical intensity.
Many groups attack the Fifth Quartet’s jarring opening rhythms. By contrast, the Takács began more deliberately, allowing them to highlight the inner three movements, which, it became clear, contain some of Bartok’s most inspired and gloriously weird textures. But none of that can be accomplished without the lucidity and precision the Takács achieved. The finale was pure rhythmic adrenaline, and the hurdy-gurdy tune that emerged at the end was so idiomatic that the audience laughed in appreciation.
There are different ways to play this music, but it is hard to think it can be done better. The Takács conclude their cycle on April 11 with the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Quartets. You should hear them.