Takacs Quartet returns in EMS series, this time with focus on the bandoneon

Takacs Quartet (from left): Andras Fejer, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O'Neill, Edward Dusinberre
Separated by an eventful decade, the two appearances here by the Takacs Quartet in the Ensemble Music
series reflect the age's tumult. In 2014, the ensemble's own Hungarian legacy was front and center in the presentation of three quartets by Bela Bartok.

On Wednesday evening at Indiana History Center. the group, which now has just one original member, reflected its recent partnership with Julien Labro, a bandoneon virtuoso of distinction. The program showed off the Takacs' outreach as collaborators. 

Julien Labro, bandoneonist

Not only that, the opening and closing works on the concert grew out of their composers' explicit responses to the pandemic: Bryce Dessner's "Circles" had the churning anxiety about connections suggested by its title; Clarice Assad's "Clash" brought to the fore the harsher realities of a world of lost connections.

The embrace of recovery from disruption was symbolized by having the Takacs members remaining onstage, seated toward the rear, during Labro's solo selections. An original interpretation of the concert's only representation of the mainstream repertoire, Maurice Ravel's 1903 String Quartet in F major, functioned as a stunning introduction to the work commissioned from Assad by Music Accord. 

The way the Takacs handled Ravel didn't strike me as invalid, and it was certainly skillful. But it verged on fragmentation and a kind of reassemblage of the piece. The performance put the work at a huge distance from Debussy, with whose string quartet it is often linked and coupled on recordings. Maybe that kind of thing is to its benefit, showing the younger composer's classical restraint as a harbinger of modernism.

The score's colors and building blocks were highlighted from the first movement on. The second movement seemed almost bashful about its expressive quality, with articulation being the aspect uppermost in the music's evocation of the Balinese gamelan orchestra. 

The theatrical flourish the Takacs gave to that movement's conclusion prepared the audience for an interpretation of the third movement that evoked the fanciful quality of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. None of this was exactly unwelcome or inauthentic to my ears, and the driven, almost manic quality of the finale fell clearly within the performance norm. 

But to pick up on program annotator Nicholas Johnson's comparisons to paintings by Monet, Picasso's cubism, and Van Gogh, I would suggest more resemblance to the post-cubist Picasso of the early 1930s, with its startling, bloblike rearrangements of the human figure, as a fitting analogy to the Takacs' interpretation. They made the Ravel their own, all right. 

Other program notes, especially the introductory essay by Doyle Armbrust about the Takacs' collaboration with Labro, spun off into rhapsodizing nearly as abstruse as the academic prose customary in program notes during the High Modernism of the past mid-century. Fortunately, the actual partnership worked as a compatible, attractive blend of gesture and sonority. The tendrils of sound that Labro's nimble fingers sent aloft in his own music ("Meditation #1") prepared the ears for the wispy phrasing that threatened to fragment the Takacs' Ravel.

And the "Vif et agite" direction at the start of the Ravel finale certainly sums up the ferocity of "Clash," even though Assad's musical language doesn't have many cognates with the Frenchman's. The Takacs' familiarity with Bartok, on other hand, played a helpful role insofar as the quartet is accustomed to Bartok's jaggedness and can emphasize a distinctive angularity of line as needed. 

In Labro's solo excursion, he showed, with the help of the recorded voice of the piece's honoree, Astor Piazzolla, the saturation of his artistry in the Argentinean master's tango-based output.  The work, "Astoracion," included Labro's introduction to the audience of the accordina, a reed instrument that showed off his dexterity with both hands in single-line coordination. There was also Labro's supremely competent version of J.S. Bach's chorale arrangement of the hymn "Wachet auf," to honor the development of the bandoneon as an inexpensive substitute for the pipe organ in German village churches.

For a five-musician encore, the accordina (somewhat reminiscent in sound and legato phrasing of the EWI (electronic wind instrument) adopted by some jazz saxophonists) was brought back for the fetching "Melodia sentimental de la Floresta do amazonas" by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Many of us would have welcomed an intermission, but presenting the program without such a break conveyed the musicians' insistence on an expansive unity that could make the case for this unusual instrumental combination. It thus amounted to a memorable end to the EMS' 80 years of concert presentation so far.


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