Last Saturday, the Takács Quartet - one of the worlds great string ensembles, founded in Budapest in 1975 and now in residence at the University of Colorado - played the second of their three scheduled concerts at Zankel Hall this season. Their series pairs quartets by Schumann and Beethoven with a work they've commissioned in the past year. (The first concert in October featured the Quartet No. 11 by Wolfgang Rihm, whose 4th quartet I heard MIVOS play two days earlier.)
The Schumann and Beethoven were pleasant enough wallpaper, but the real fireworks were provided by James MacMillan's (b. 1959) Quartet No. 3: a rich, intense work whose main theme was inspired by the keening of women off the coast of MacMillan's native Scotland. As first violinist Edward Dusinberre pointed out in remarks before the performance, this was music of "barely organized chaos,"with high pitched shrieks and rhythmic tapping that looked like the kind of free improv I usually see at Issue or The Stone. The piece grew more mournful as it progressed, with the cello sounding like a distant foghorn and the violins playing quiet, haunting trills. At the end of the third and final movement, the strings made no sound at all: a Cage-like gimmick that in context proved absolutely devastating. Like some modern-day Macbeth, I can only imagine what sort of ghosts haunted MacMillan in the creation of this quartet.