The Russian writer Isaac Babel championed a ruthless economy in prose. “A short story,” he once remarked, “must have the precision of a military communique or a bank check.”
Dmitri Shostakovich, who was Babel’s near-contemporary, seems to have heeded this advice in his Eleventh Quartet. Notes are few. Textures are spare. The edifice feels unfinished, conditional, predicated on a future to which the composer could no longer fully subscribe. But the flip side of this radical control is that each gesture feels pregnant with meaning. The fifth movement, for instance, is innocently marked as a “Humoresque.” But the jokes are cutting, Kafkaesque.
Most professional ensembles can approximate this movement’s desired effect with skill. On Friday night in Jordan Hall, the Takacs Quartet did it with utter mastery. As second violinist Károly Schranz closed out the movement with an oscillating two note figure, the last laughs landed with a devastatingly dull thud, like earth on a coffin. This exactitude of sonic imagination is a quality the Takacs Quartet’s loyal audiences have come to expect from the group’s regular visits to town. That doesn’t make its impact any less remarkable.
Of the three works presented in Friday night’s rewarding performance, Shostakovich’s Eleventh made the strongest impact on this listener. The playing in the night’s opening Mozart Quartet (K. 387) took a few minutes to reach the Takacs’ typical standard, but the evening’s closing account of Beethoven’s towering late Quartet Op. 131 galvanized the crowd with good reason. The group’s Decca recording of this piece brings out more of the sublime wildness at the heart of this music, but Friday’s performance had subtlety, insight, and a grandeur all its own.
The Takacs were founded over 40 years ago and, as similarly storied ensembles like the Guarneri and the Tokyo Quartets have disbanded in the last decade, these four players are still going strong. And unlike with certain other groups that manage to pass the four-decade mark, with these players, it’s about so much more than just showing up and presenting a plausible simulacrum of a Distinguished Quartet.
If there was a special note of gratitude in the crowd’s warm reception on Friday, I think it was not only for the performance the Takacs gave but for what it reflected: a deeply moving sense of dedication to exploring the mysteries of the extraordinary quartet literature and presenting their findings in such vibrant three-dimensional life. We are grateful not just for what they play but why they keep playing.
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston
At: Jordan Hall, Friday nightJeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.