BARTÓK: String Quartets 1, 3, & 5.
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Very good. Many consider Bartók's cycle of string quartets the finest
of the Twentieth Century, and they haven't forgotten Schoenberg, Bloch,
Holmboe, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Weinberg, or Carter. I always feel uncomfortable
when handicapping leaves the race track for the Pantheon of aesthetics.
Does it really matter whether Superman can beat up Captain Marvel? Moreover,
after a certain point I don't usually listen in terms of better or worse
but instead become more interested in the individual profile of a score.
The Obvious Greatness, once acknowledged, of the Bartók quartets
turns out the least interesting thing one can say about them.
Bartók wrote string quartets throughout his career, including
three before 1900, none officially acknowledged and two actually lost.
make up the official canon, the first appearing in 1908 and the sixth
in 1939, and each seems to distill to its essence the composer's other
at the time.
For example, like his first violin concerto and Two Portraits,
the String Quartet No. 1 owes its origin to Bartók's infatuation with Stefi
Geyer, a violinist. Musically, it combines many influences -- late Romanticism,
including a lingering trace of Max Reger, with a new, sparer style. The
first movement transforms one of the "Stefi" themes from Two
Portraits (the jagged one). The context could hardly differ more.
takes a "grotesque" idea and puts it into a long-breathing, highly
contrapuntal slow movement -- Bartók's version of a Liebestod, in
this case a song about the death of a love rather than of the beloved.
However, the second and third movements dust off the gloom. Bartók's
friend Zoltán Kodály characterized these two movements as "a
return to life," and the third movement in particular show Bartók's
newer, more Modern folksong style beginning to emerge. Occasionally, snippets
of a Hungarian pop tune "Just a Fair Girl" pop up.
The Twenties found Bartók working in an aggressive Modern style.
He fooled around with twelve-tone ideas and achieved his most concentrated
and compressed music. In its sonority, the Third String Quartet (1927)
is touched by Berg's Lyric Suite, also for string quartet, which
(and, incidentally, George Gershwin as well) admired. Bartók asks
for an army of bowing, tapping, sliding, and plucking effects from the
players. Structurally, it may be the most unusual of all his string quartets.
In four movements, at one level it breaks into two (first+second; third+fourth),
but the third movement, titled "Ricapitulazione della prima parte" (recap
of the first part), obviously refers to the first movement, while the fourth
recalls the second. The "Ricapitulazione" title misleads, however,
since not one theme of the first movement reappears. Instead, Bartók
works with both characteristic gestures from the earlier movement and general
mood. The finale works with both mood and actual themes of the second movement.
Furthermore, the piece holds together so tightly and has no breaks between
its parts that it feels like a single long movement. The odd-numbered movements
brood, while the even-numbered explode from the built-up tension. Bartók
uses this same rhetorical strategy in the Music for Strings, Percussion,
The Fifth String Quartet comes from 1934. Bartók has to some extent
tamed his avant-garde style and has begun to admit "classicizing," though
not strictly speaking classical, forces in his music. The quartet has an "arch
form" -- five movements symmetrical around the third, the "keystone" movement.
The first movement is structurally amazing. Just some of the stuff going
on includes a general sonata form, except in the recapitulation where the
three main themes of the exposition appear inverted (upside-down) and in
reverse order (essentially, symmetrical around a midpoint). The key progressions
essentially follow the whole-tone scale: B-flat, C, D, E, F#, A-flat, and
B-flat. Movements two through four are all in ternary form (ABA, symmetry
again), while the finale, a sonata (more specifically a sonata-rondo) like
the first, we can describe as ABCB'A'. Again, the notion of symmetry pervades
the entire score. It strikes me as one of the more difficult movements
to bring off in Bartók's entire quartet cycle, it's so musically
rich and complex. Players can easily get lost in the minutiae and blur
the general shape.
The second movement, uniquely beautiful, exemplifies Bartók's so-called "night
music." It begins, really, with the whirring of insects. Each instrument
tries to begin something, but manages to speak only in fragments. The first
violin hesitantly expands its fragments, while the lower instruments intone
a grave chorale. With this support, the violin finally manages to speak
in musical sentences, and the other instruments join in. The quartet writing
I think ideal -- clear, well-directed conversation among the instruments,
shifts occurring not merely at the "right" time, but at the
best possible. After a subdued climax, the music breaks apart again into
until a quiet downward slide by the cello extinguishes whatever life
A sardonic scherzo and trio in "Bulgarian" rhythms comprise the
keystone movement. The scherzo rhythm careens about in 9/8 meter, irregularly
broken up into 4+3+2, while the trio is in 10/8, symmetrically divided
into 3+2+2+3. Throughout all the careening, one continually feels "caught
on the wrong foot." However, the movement and especially its ending
seems more whimsical than uneasy.
The fourth movement returns us to Bartók's world of "night
music." Many of the ideas from the second movement recur, although
with different bowings and voicings. For example, the trills that opened
the second movement become pizzicatos in the fourth. The chorale, this
time with ricochet bowing (creating bounces on the strings) instead of
a sustained tone, now puts the chorale voices in the upper strings over
the melodic fragments and melody in the cello. A canon between the violin
and cello ensues, leading to a climax much more intense than that of
the second movement, and the nocturne winks out with a weird pizzicato
upward slide from the cello.
The fifth movement recalls the festive mood of the first, this time invoking
the "Hungarian rondo" and village fiddling in a sophisticated
way. Stretto, canon, and fugue pervade the piece, and every single one
turns up the excitement. Nevertheless, Bartók wisely allows us to
catch our breath so that we can return to the floor for another whirl.
Just before the end, however, a hurdy-gurdy seems to wander in, completely
out of character and out of key. It's a wrench, as if a surrealistic bus
ticket has suddenly materialized from the fifth dimension. It may be my
single favorite moment in all of Bartók's quartets. But it's gone
in a poof! and the music jerks us back to the final tizzy.
I've known these scores for about fifty years, and I've heard a few recordings,
beginning with the Juilliard's pioneering set. A lot of great accounts
exist: the Emerson, the Takács (my current favorite), the Tokyo,
the Berg, etc., etc. The Euclid Quartet plays with sensitivity and intelligence.
Unquestionably, they understand these works, unlike, say, the Belcea
Quartet, which I'd do my best to avoid. I do have little quibbles. For
they don't do a true col legno, called for in some of the quartets. In
col legno, the player bows with the wood, rather than with the
horsehair, and many hate to do it because it can wreak havoc on a bow.
If you play
an expensive violin, you likely have an expensive bow. But I think I'm
picking nits here. More important, while they shine in the quieter moments
-- I've heard no account of the slow movement of the Fifth that betters
theirs -- they lack that extra bit of power in the fast movements that
would raise them beyond the very, very, very good. Therefore, this should
not be your only version of the Bartók quartets, but a "supplemental," once
you have heard the scores many different ways.
S.G.S. (January 2015)