Queen's Hall, Edinburgh
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Although now based in the United States, the Hungary-founded Takacs Quartet keeps one foot firmly in the mittel-European soundworld from whence it came. And this programme was near enough to home territory: in the first half were two Czech masterpieces - Janacek's Second String Quartet Intimate Letters and Smetana's First String Quartet - and in the second half was Beethoven's Razumovsky Quartet.
Yet it seemed to take the quartet some time to get comfortable. The opening of the Janacek was a little stilted and lacked a real centre to the group sound. The narrative strands were carefully delineated - maybe too carefully, because things didn't really synthesise until the searching Adagio. Here, though, the playing was beautiful, dark and heartfelt.
Compared to the glossy virtuosity of many younger quartets the Takacs have a rugged edge to their articulation and a slight unevenness to timbre. But in works such as the Smetana, written when the composer was facing ill health and depression, the sense of struggle and fallibility becomes a valid and touching expressive component. In the slow movement Smetana recalls the happiness of his first love; the quartet handled the tender melody with grace and sincerity.
What the Takacs absolutely master is the art of musical conversation. There was a real sense of four equal players on stage, with violist Geraldine Walther leading every bit as much as first violinist Edward Dusinberre. Each exchange was passed around with utmost care: occasionally this got in the way of fluidity in the Razumovsky, but more often the attention to detail was revelatory.
IF there is such a species as the perfect concert, then Rinaldo Alessandrino and his Concerto Italiano came very close to it in the stupendous concert they gave on Thursday night as the closing event in in this year's glorious Greyfriars Kirk Festival series.
The focus was primarily on Monteverdi, with a small clutch of great madrigals including the evocatively-titled Lettera amorosa and, particularily, the tragic Combattimeto di Tancredi e Clorinda, nominally a madrigal, but in fact a tiny, early opera with all the ingredients, not least three fabulous singers, Anna Simboli and Luca Dordola in the title parts, along with tenor Gianluca Ferrarini, Alessandrini's pristine, stylish band of strings and continuo, and this real maestro himself on harpsichord.
In parallel with that, however, and with a touch of genius, Alessandrini also gave us a piece from each of four composers, Marini, Uccellini, Merula and Castella who created a north Italian school of composition and string playing at the time of Monteverdi. The music, which I did not know, was exhilarating and astonishing. (Oh, what I learned on Thursday.)
All this was wonderful enough, but you know what Alessandrini did with all these pieces by all these composers? With impressive skill and considerable intellectual command of the psychology of concert planning, he presented the whole thing as a continuum, with no bumps, no breaks, no transitions and everyone, invisible in movement, just being in the right place at the right time. It was fluid, seam-free, flawless in structure, presentation and performance. I can't speak for the capacity audience, but this was a great musical night in my own life, and a complete education.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
VISITING as part of a European tour this month, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis played to a well-sold Usher Hall audience last night.
On paper, their programme threatened to take us from the sublime to the ridiculous, starting with Strauss and ending with Grainger.
It was a curious emotional journey, though full of colour and variety.
The opening Strauss Don Juan that burst from the packed stage of players was impressive in its neatness, but for a long time failed to deliver any thrills.
When at last the heat built in the orchestra sound, we reached a satisfying climax.
Soprano Erin Wall then appeared for the Four Last Songs, making a much-anticipated return after her 2011 EIF performance of Thais.
Though her voice is undoubtedly gorgeous, in the upper register particularly, too much of her music was lost in the solid and heavily presented orchestral sound that surrounded her, and the overall result was more disappointing than transcendental.
With a reduced orchestra around him for the start of the second half, Truls Mork, on the other hand, was audible in every note of the Schumann Cello Concerto.
Mork is a visceral, impassioned and accurate player, who captured the manic qualities of this piece, though some quality of human frailty was missing.
As we came to Percy Grainger's The Warriors for the finale, Davis seemed to come alive, revelling in this unknown music.
Apparently a coded depiction of the devastation of war, it actually sounds something like a jolly 1930s Hollywood film score, although it was written in 1917.
It razzed and danced to the finish, and the audience loved it.
This review appeared in later editions of yesterday's Herald.