Classical: How tragedy made a trio

Gabor Takacs was once the leader of the successful Takacs Quartet. Now he's the violinist in the Takacs Trio. What happened? Michael Church chronicles the break-up of a musical marriage

Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments." If Shakespeare was eloquent on connubial problems, what would he have made of a string quartet? For unlike a rock group - where temperament is a plus - a quartet can allow no personal discord to sully its immaculate surface. Yoked in round-the-clock intimacy year after year, its members must routinely produce the sublimest form of collaborative art. Musical history is littered with the human disasters resulting from this inhuman pressure; the genesis of the Takacs Trio, who play at the Wigmore Hall on Monday, is perhaps a perfect case in point.

The Takacs Trio? You're more likely to have heard of the award-winning Takacs Quartet. And behind Gabor Takacs-Nagy's transition, from the quartet he once led to the trio he now fronts, lies the history of a wound that will never heal.

Encountering the Takacs Quartet recently, during one of their tutorial visits to the Guildhall, I extracted an account of their emergence. The original members met at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, and hatched the idea of a quartet while playing football. They struck lucky with a Communist government eager for cultural ambassadors, and eventually emigrated to Boulder, Colorado as the local university's resident quartet. But two of the four who went there were Brits; the original violist had died of cancer, and the first leader of the quartet had quit. Why so? There were difficulties; he had a hand problem... Nobody had much to say, and the matter was diplomatically dropped.

When I ask Gabor Takacs the same question a few weeks later, he is thrown into consternation. "What did the others say?" he asks anxiously. Not much, I reply. Then, taking a deep breath, he begins. "The main reason was a problem with my hand - physiological or psychological, probably both." He pauses awkwardly. "It was stress. The beginning of the Nineties, the end of socialism. I was the only one who went to the United States without a family; I was the one with the greatest nostalgia for Hungary. When Communism fell, I wanted to go back, but the boys didn't want to. They had families, and were rooted in Colorado, while I was not. We had arguments.

"I was living alone in my room, and the quartet was my whole life. When I went to rehearsal, I was trembling with tension, like a Formula One car. I kept demanding more rehearsals, and I got more and more wound up; I drank hundreds of cups of coffee, and insisted on our playing a huge repertoire. There were too many concerts, and too much travelling.

"Then I developed something in my hand - like when a bad driver grabs the steering wheel: cramp. If any young player comes to me now with that symptom, I say, "Stop completely, go to a psychologist, go to a doctor." But I didn't stop, and my playing got worse, so that the boys never knew how I was going to play. I put them through a very difficult time. Finally I could hardly play at all, and in October 1992 we came to the decision that it was over with me. There was no argument.

"Afterwards, very slowly, I got better, by going back to my old teacher and starting to play again from zero, with open strings, like a beginner. Two years ago, I met [the group] again for the first time - my heart was beating at 200 - but I still cannot listen to them. If you divorce somebody, and if somebody else tells you that the new husband or wife is fantastic, it feels odd. And Ed [the new leader] asked that if I were to come to one of their concerts, would I please not tell him in advance - otherwise he would find the stress too much. But how could I go? If the concert wasn't good, that would be a bad feeling for me. If it was good, that would be a bad feeling too."

Does he dream about them? "Every night! Frustrating dreams, of two different types. In one, it's the old situation and Gabor Ormai [the violist] is still alive - I often dream I am talking to him. In the other, it's a rehearsal and I suddenly realise Edward is playing too. Once I dreamt that Edward was coming to the rehearsal, so I went to a toilet and locked the door and waited there for hours, hoping that some solution would take place."

It never does. He hopes to meet them for dinner soon, when their tour brings them close to his home in Switzerland, "but I doubt if I'll listen to them perform". Meanwhile he's building a new life which ought by rights to compensate: as concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, as head of the string-quartet department at the Geneva conservatoire, and as founder of a new trio with the pianist Denes Varjon and the cellist Peter Szabo. "Now," he says, "I can be constructive again."

Can the trio become as satisfying as the quartet once was? "That's a hard question. I have huge hopes for it - I've found top-quality colleagues, and my form is steadily improving - but the two things can't be compared. In the quartet the first violinist is obviously a leader, whereas in a trio the violinist doesn't have so much responsibility, which is ideal for me at present." A pause, a sigh. "This trio is a friendship. But the quartet was a marriage." And the expression on the face of this eminent musician - with a career in the ascendant - says simply: "My life is blighted."

The Takacs Piano Trio are to play at the Wigmore Hall, London W1, on 26 April at 1pm. Their new CD of hitherto unrecorded works by Liszt and Laszlo Lajtha is on the Hungaroton label.

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