Takács Quartet (2020)

Takács Quartet (2020)

Sep 20-28, 2020

Takács Quartet (2020)

The Grammy-winning string quartet "are matchless [in] their supreme artistry." —The Guardian

Joined by violist Richard O’Neill in his first season with the ensemble, the Grammy-winning Takács Quartet has moved audiences and sold out halls at CU Boulder for more than three decades and counting. The group’s irresistible dynamic has proven time and again that the members of the Takács are “matchless, their supreme artistry manifest at every level" The Guardian (London).

Streamed performance

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This performance will stream live on Sunday, Sept. 20, 4 p.m. The captured video will then be available through Monday, Sept. 28, 11 p.m.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421; Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10; Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132

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Program notes

By Marc Shulgold

String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

The evening of June 17, 1783, witnessed a pair of births in the Mozart household. As Constanze later recalled, while little Raimond was entering the world, his attentive father cared for her during the final stages of labor in between putting the finishing touches on the Menuetto of his D minor string quartet. Alas, the boy lived only two months. The completed piece, however, would join its five siblings in the immortal collection of quartets that Mozart dedicated to his friend Haydn. The only one of the six set in a minor key, K. 421 is listed as second in order of composition by Mozart. While it is significant that these were a gift to the elder statesman of the string quartet (“...I send my six sons to you,” Mozart wrote in his note to Haydn), let’s remember that Haydn famously shared his reaction with the composer’s father after two readings of the quartets in early 1785, no doubt stunning Leopold by claiming, “Your son is the greatest composer known to me.”

All that aside, what stands out today is the individual brilliance of the half dozen works, acknowledged by Mozart to be “the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor.” There are wonders aplenty in the set, including the fugue that ends K. 387 and the otherworldly introduction that begins the aptly named “Dissonance” Quartet, K. 465. Marvels unfold in the D minor quartet as well, opening with a dramatic octave drop in the first violin that launches a journey alternating between darkness and light, moving effortlessly from the gentle Andante to the following anguished Menuetto, and culminating with another octave drop that concludes the theme-and-variation finale with a surprising major chord (known as a Picardy third). 

String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

The final decade of the 19th century promised a world of change. Right in the thick of the dawning era and its exciting potential stood Debussy—long regarded as a singular force, a true original who was steering music’s shift into the unknown. But look closely at such early works as his G minor string quartet, and it’s obvious that the young Frenchman had been absorbing the plentiful sounds and aromas of Paris and beyond in the late 1800s.

In 1889, he’d visited the Paris World Exposition and was swept away by the percussive rhythms of Balinese Gamelan. Those sounds would dominate the pizzicato second movement of that string quartet, a work that mystified listeners at its premiere in late 1893. Most of those in attendance were loyal to César Franck and his fondness for a cyclical structure that developed a single musical idea across the span of four movements. That approach also dominates Debussy’s quartet—yet, while the opening phrase does appear in three of the four movements, it does so in cleverly concealed ways. Also nearly invisible are the early influences of his study in Italy in 1884, as winner of the Prix de Rome, plus his summer in Russia four years earlier, working for Nadezhda von Meck (Tchaikovsky’s patroness). And how could Debussy ignore the paintings of Monet or the symbolist writings of Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Verlaine?

What is inescapable is the confident individuality of the G minor quartet (his only mature work given a key signature). Despite an abundance of episodic ideas and numerous changes in key and tempo, the clarity of structure is easily embraced, as is the sweetly flowing tune in the quartet’s third movement. Music was changing, thanks to this and Debussy’s other early masterpieces, L’après-midi d’un faune and Pelléas et Mélisande. All products of a vibrant new era, distilled by this brilliant young composer.

String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Locked in a world of near-silence brought on by an agonizingly slow march toward deafness, Beethoven spent most of his final days creating five string quartets that continue to astonish with their bold sonic journeys, and with their confessional utterances so personal, it seems as if we’re invading the composer’s private thoughts and emotions. Beethoven fully intended for these works to be heard and felt by contemporary audiences and those of future generations. We’ll leave it to serious scholars to analyze and “explain” the details of works that, truth be told, are best experienced, rather than understood.

Three of those quartets were composed in 1825, with Op. 132 completed that summer, written during and after one of Beethoven’s serious bouts with illness (this time, a painful attack of intestinal inflammation). Reluctantly obeying doctor’s orders to lay off spicy foods and liquor, the composer recovered, expressing his joy and relief in the quartet’s extraordinary third movement, the immortal Heiliger Dankegesang (meaning “Sacred Song of Thanks”). The centerpiece of this five-part work, the movement’s music travels from a slow, deeply spiritual hymn to episodes displaying renewal and optimism, evaporating into profound silence.

It seems strange that such profundity would be followed by a little march—but this juxtaposition reminds us that Beethoven never shied away from contrasts of darkness and light, utter seriousness and good-natured fun, brevity and expansiveness. A similar contrast unfolds in the spontaneous mood shifts of the opening movement, followed by a minuet built on a simple repeating six-note motif (surrounding a charming bagpipe-flavored trio). Through its unexpected twists, Op. 132 manages to hold its shape, supporting an emotional message delivered straight from Beethoven’s soul.


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