‘This programme is not short on romantic sensibility. Dvorák’s Viola Quintet in E flat major is one of our favourite pieces to play. He manages to get a sense of casual joie de vivre and yet it’s also very moving, but never lightweight or trivial. The melodies, the way he uses the second viola to start the whole piece, the folk dance: it’s a joyful party.
‘The Quartet in A flat major is different material. In the first movement the challenge is to create some of the symphonic drama we all enjoy in the ‘New World’ Symphony, but without making the quartet sound too thick in texture – there’s a lot going on. The second movement is similar to the quintet and has a gorgeous, nostalgic trio section. I always think of Dvorák’s biographical situation when we play this piece: he’d gone to America and had good experiences there, but in the end things didn’t work out. He started it when he was there, but came home and finished it, so it spans the sense of the New World as well as the return to his homeland. I’ve read convincing arguments that he knew this was the last piece of chamber music he was going to write. There is a mixture of nostalgia and regret for the things that haven’t worked out, but by the last movement, it’s joyful.
‘The Webern is like a short, simple version of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Not many people know it and audiences are usually expecting something different, but it’s the most gorgeous late-Romantic music, like a mini Mahler slow movement.’
A string quartet is a microcosm of life, says Takács Quartet first violinist Edward Dusinberre, as he explains what he has learnt working closely with three other people for the last 23 years, and how he feels about cough sweets.
How important is it to know about the composer when you play their work?
I’ve always been obsessed with Beethoven and there is a lot of primary source material on him, so I’ve put more hours into reading around that subject, and it would be ideal to have that connection with every composer. There’s always something to be gained by the process. For me it’s an important way of grounding my interpretation. It helps if you can start with a specific idea: for example, with Dvorák it might be the nostalgia and homesickness. If you’ve got that at the back of your mind as a context, it’s a starting point for your own communication of the music, although you mustn’t get trapped by it. What I like about it is that you feed all the information in, but you don’t know how it’s going to affect your performance or teaching.
What does being in a quartet teach you about human relationships?
The great thing about playing chamber music is that we can’t be in gridlock. We know as a matter of professional conduct that once we get on stage, we need to have worked out some consensus, and not just a majority, where some poor person feels like they’ve been out-voted.
Quartets are wonderful for drawing people together. They are a microcosm of the things that we struggle with in our personal relationships and politics. That makes it sound as if because I’m in a string quartet I know how it’s done, but it’s difficult for all of us to know how to balance our own need for individual expression with being part of a group.
It’s very much on our minds at the moment with the American political situation and the ridiculous rhetoric of everyone blaming each other. If these people were forced to play amateur chamber music together every Thursday evening, we might get better results in Congress. I’m a very firm and biased advocate for the importance of string quartets in society, generally.
Do you have any special tricks for resolving conflicts?
If there seems to be an argument that isn’t moving, we send a person out to listen as if from the audience. That usually changes the nature of the discussion.
It’s embarrassing to admit for a chamber musician, but you can’t take for granted the ability to listen well – you always have to remind yourself. It’s a danger with people you know well and have been listening to for a long time, that you assume they will play a phrase in a particular way, but you should never do this.
It’s also important to know when to talk and when to shut up. Quite often I find a discussion can be resolved if I just keep my mouth shut. It’s a little humbling, but that’s how it is. I might feel very strongly about the timing and character of a phrase and then realise even a few days later that I didn’t need to feel that strongly and that it can be done in a different way. Within a quartet, everyone has different ideas about phrasing, and you thrash them out, but language can be very deceiving and unreliable.
There’s never any point in trying to prove you’re right – the only gain is reaching a result where everyone feels that a process has been worked through and we all like what we’re doing. You need four people to leave their egos outside when you rehearse and I think we’re lucky like that.
You have to be able to criticise things and to take criticism, but when you get on stage the atmosphere is different. You want everyone to play as well as they can and feel as comfortable as possible. In the heat of the concert we’re all perfectly tuned into each other, especially if one of us needs more help from the others on a particular night because they’re ill, or if someone has a particular solo coming up and you know what they want to do with it. There’s a generosity of spirit.
How much do your interpretations change in the concert hall?
You don’t want to take something you’ve melded in a practice room and put it in the concert hall in exactly the same way. It changes by degrees, depending on many variables, especially the acoustics. If you’re in a really nice venue, like Wigmore Hall, it’s likely that slow movements will get drawn out more, unlike in very dry acoustics, where you don’t feel the sound is being sustained. It’s a matter of how you sustain melodic lines. Sometimes one of us will try a different dynamic shape. Often we’ll notice something different on a repeat. I know musicians who map out what they’re going to do differently in an exposition repeat, and I admire that they’re thinking of doing something different rather than just doing the same, but we prefer to leave that open, with some options up our sleeves.
What affect do audiences have on your performances?
I don’t think audiences realise how much their listening is part of the act of creation. It affects us very strongly. You get to the devastatingly bleak end of the Shostakovich Third Quartet, and when you get to where the final coda has wound down, you can tell the level of intent listening in the hall. If it’s very quiet, the silence can go on for a long time, which is wonderful, but there are times when that would feel artificial and forced, depending on how things are in the audience.
Sometimes there are humorous moments, such as at the end of a Haydn quartet, where there’s a fake ending and a pause. You can pick up whether an audience gets that and is amused by it. You hear a reaction, a little laugh or moment of surprise. We like it when they fall into the trap – it means we’re doing something right.
Sometimes someone starts to open a cough sweet at the beginning of a slow movement and they’re doing it so carefully, trying not to make any noise, that we get to the end of the movement and there’s been a crinkle all the way through. You try not to let it affect you, but it does. I’ve been tempted to just say, ‘Just open that sucker, for goodness sake,’ but those sorts of interactions are never good. It’s part of our job and we mustn’t make a big deal. There’s nothing to be gained by admonishing an audience.
I don’t mind applause after each movement – it’s never bothered me. There are some pieces where you want to make a connection between movements, but it’s entirely up to the performers to create something over the course of a concert. You might have an audience that starts off clapping between Haydn movements and that’s fine, but then if it’s Shostakovich they quite quickly get the idea – you don’t have to say anything. It’s in your body language, how quickly you go on. You don’t need to rap the audience on the knuckles – it just takes communication. People should feel comfortable in a concert hall.
Why might some people feel uncomfortable in concert halls and what can be done about it?
I understand the problem of getting new audiences in if they think they’re going to do the wrong thing. On the other hand I don’t think the level of silence we expect is that much different from live theatre, or even movies. People say they don’t feel comfortable in a concert hall because of the conventions, but I think it’s probably more to do with not feeling comfortable because of their reaction to the music. If you’re sitting there and you don’t understand what’s going on onstage and you don’t relate to it, you start thinking about other things, like coughing, how you’re dressed, how the person next to you seems stuffy. That’s a sign that you’re not engaged in the music.
My response to that is that maybe the expectation is too high. When you go to a concert you shouldn’t necessarily expect to be fully engaged for two hours. It’s the same with museums. Often when I go to a museum I look at twenty paintings before I find one I like. That may be my ignorance, but if I have a good experience with one painting and I want to stand in front of it for twenty minutes then it’s worthwhile, even if the other fifteen didn’t have that effect. It’s good if you can find something in a two-hour concert that makes you want to come back and listen for more.
Some people who consider themselves knowledgeable about classical music perhaps make a mistake of creating an atmosphere that they’re understanding everything, but when I go to a concert, even if I know the pieces well, there are always passages where I think I didn’t quite get it, and I notice my mind wandering. I think it’s important to analyse these things. Too often we say it’s because the performance is bad, but it can be to do with us, and we can learn about ourselves.
Interview by Ariane Todes