Karl Henning | 29 NOV 2023
Like Beethoven a century before, Béla Bartók was engaged by and chose to express himself through the string quartet genre throughout his entire career. Where notable composers contemporaneous and/or subsequent to the Hungarian master (Dmitri Shostakovich, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Elliott Carter, e.g.) who also gave us significant quartet cycles, undertook the genre at a somewhat more advanced age as composers. Beethoven, of course, published his six Opus 18 quartets when he was 31, while Bartók completed his first quartet at 28.
The “Lento” movement opening the First Quartet (completed in Jan 1909) begins with paired imitative statements, the two violins to start, and in a while, the viola and cello at the octave below. The lines are lusciously sinuously chromatic, and the interplay of the independent lines yields lush harmonies of fluid triads which are not made to serve any “tonality” per se but which surge restlessly. The effect and soundworld are of no great distance from Schoenberg’s 1899 string sextet Verklärte Nacht. The overall elegiac character appears to mourn the close of a relationship with Stefi Geyer, a violinist with whom Bartók associated a four-note motif, of which a variation figures in the very first measure of the quartet. Through the second and third movements, the musical language increasingly trends to a folk idiom informed by the composer’s extensive fieldwork collecting folk songs while it was still a living practice. The pairings opening the second movement are in parallel thirds.
The “Moderato” first movement of the Second Quartet (1915-17) begins in a vein not particularly less fluidly chromatic than that in which the First Quartet had begun, yet the figurations of the individual lines often suggest tonal gestures which are straining against the suggestion of tonality. One aspect of the movement which particularly impressed me on this visitation was where the cello settles into what (in another piece) might be a conventional tonal accompaniment figure, but the superimposed textures and activity of the upper instruments are completely independent tonally.
Even more pronouncedly than in the First Quartet, the Second Quartet moves from the elegant rarefied liquidity of late-Romantic chromaticism to a vigorous folk dance in the “Allegro molto capriccioso.” Not that the tonal palette is white-note diatonic, but much of the chromatic activity (as it were) is ornamental to comparatively tonal dance figures.
Inversely to the first quartet, it is the concluding movement which is “Lento,” a chorale texture of free-floating chromaticism resulting in rich chords, harmonies utterly foreign to the quartet’s nominal “key” of A minor, and yet when the final “cadence” of the movement is the minor third A-C played pizzicato in the viola and cello, it is completely convincing. Occasionally, Bartók uses the term stretto, after the Romantic era usage of Chopin and Liszt (e.g.) to indicate a “pressing forward” whether of the pulse itself, or an increased tension of activity, or indeed of both.
The four discrete sections of the Third Quartet (1927) are played without a pause. Fittingly, Bartók composed it in the space of three weeks. One of the first striking passages in the first part (“Prima parte: Moderato”) is a single sostenuto measure which is more clearly an A minor cadence than anything in the Second Quartet (designated, as aforementioned, in that key). Then, after a “Grand Pause” measure, a passage played sul ponticello, a marvelous color, thinner, brighter (in a brittle way) than normal string tone, produced by bowing the strings close to the bridge.
The composer also employs col legno (the players using the wooden side of the bow against the string rather than the horse hair) and sulla tastiera (bowing the strings above the fingerboard) in the second part (“Seconda parte: Allegro”). There follows more a reimagining of the material of the first part than a “recapitulation” (“Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato”) and a bracing conclusion: (“Coda: Allegro molto”) In spite of all this verbal explanation, the third quartet is altogether a shorter, more tightly argued affair than either of the first two quartets, and lives robustly into the dissonance characteristic of that decade in music.
The five movements of the Fourth Quartet (1928) exemplify Bartók’s fondness for “arch form”: Opening Allegro — Scherzo — Slow movement — Scherzo — Allegro (molto), in which some material from the first movement returns. Throughout the quartet, there are dozens of “micro-canons,” snappy miniature points of imitation. This is less a novelty of approach as an indication of the composer’s progressive preoccupation.
The third movement (“Non troppo lento”) is as yet the most overtly emotive music in the quartets, a kind of aria accompagnata featuring the cello singing a kind of impassioned Csárdás. The violins and viola play widely spaced chords and the composer makes a coloristic game of having them sometimes play senza vibrato.
The fourth movement (“Allegretto pizzicato”) is a second scherzo, and notably introduces a “snap pizzicato.” In normal pizzicato, the player pushes the string laterally. The “snap pizzicato” has the player pull the string up, and on its release the string strikes the fingerboard. In addition to reprising canonic material (and more) from the first movement, the concluding “Allegro molto” features ever more irregular rhythmic accents suggestive of the asymmetric meters of some Balkan folk dances.
The Fifth Quartet (1934) was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, daughter of a wealthy wholesaler in Chicago. Coolidge also commissioned quartets by Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Anton Webern, Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, and the ballets Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland and Apollon musagète by Igor Stravinsky. Another arch form, but where the “cornerstone” movement in the Fourth Quartet was the quasi-Csárdás slow movement, in this case it is is a Scherzo (“Alla bulgarese”) featuring exhilarating use of irregular meters (4+2+3/8 in the Scherzo proper, and a breathtaking but silken 3+2+2+3/8 in the Trio.)
The second movement (“Adagio molto”) is a textbook example of Bartók’s “night music” where the movement is less a musical declaration, and more a mysterious texture of delicate isolated events. Slight, quasi-pointillistic gestures suggestive of nature nearly at rest and melodic fragments, rather than “a tune.”
One of the most striking passages in the Finale (“Allegro vivace”) is when, after the four players repeatedly hammer through rich chords of unrelenting double-stops, the train stops, and an innocuous hurdy-gurdy chuffs away accompanying the second violin in an anodyne modification of the theme. So far, so surreal, but then the first violin takes over the theme, a semitone too high. It is one of the most exquisitely sarcastic moments in the string quartet literature. Then the proper matter of the movement resumes and sees us home.
Bartók composed his final quartet in 1939, a time not only of the rise of fascism in Hungary (I suppose one needs to be clearer now, and say, “the first rise of fascism in Hungary”) but of his mother’s declining health (she would die in December). Each of the four movements is headed by a motto (introduced by solo viola) marked mesto (“sad,” but more drained of joy than the more common triste.) The first movement is a sonata design (“Vivace”). The second (“Marcia”) in the style of a Verbunkos, a recruiting dance with characteristically snappy dotted rhythms. The third an acerbic Burlesque, and the fourth, an unrelieved lament.
The New England Conservatory’s Faculty Quartet-in-Residence, the Borromeo Quartet gave a gripping, superbly musical account of all six quartets on Tuesday evening at Jordan Hall. They were confident throughout, never merely safe, and played the entire evening with electrifying verve. There is the challenge in the first place, of the four of them living with the music so that they feel prepared to present such a demanding program, but atop that foundation, there is the fact (apparent from the above thumbnails) that to go on stage and execute this program is nothing short of a communal marathon, a physical and mental tour de force. Beyond this, the concert was a supremely artistic success.
The brilliant performance of the Borromeo Quartet is a magnificent advocacy for why we still have such performances. We all enjoy and have grown accustomed to the miraculous ease (which has only increased thanks to recent advances in technology and connectivity) of access to musical recordings. For many music lovers worldwide, the only opportunity to hear these six quartets (truly a monument in the literature) lies in a good number of very fine (at the least) recordings. My experience of taking in the pieces live in the space and in the musicians’ presence was richly illuming. I shan’t extend this commentary by listing them, but there were a dozen moments in the course of the evening when a passage, an event, or even a note within a chord fell upon my ear and impinged my musical mind in a new way. This was a concert that taught anew the lesson of why, even when the process of preparation is of necessity arduous, we still perform music live.
On a final personal note, the study scores of the Bartók quartets (and a recording of the Juilliard String Quartet on cassettes) were among my first purchases at Patelson’s, a music shop that used to operate near Carnegie Hall in New York. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that for a composer like myself, a concert such as this was something of a dream come true. It is, therefore, no surprise that I met two other composers at Jordan Hall that evening who felt exactly the same. ■