On Thursday evening the Chamber Music Society presented the first installment of its Bartók Cycle. The acclaimed Jerusalem Quartet played this week the first, third and fifth string quartets and next Thursday, in another webcast performance, will play the second, fourth and sixth.
Next to Beethoven's late quartets, those by Bartók are arguably the greatest in the repertoire. Both composers used the string quartet genre as a form of laboratory in which to work out their musical ideas and to find a path forward. A 1949 article by Milton Babbitt postulated a "single conceptual attitude" that linked all six Bartók quartets and then went on to discuss the manner in which the thematic relationships among movements affected the structure of a given work.
The Quartet No. 1 in A minor was composed in 1909. When discussing this work, attention is usually placed on Bartók's failed romance with violinist Stefi Geyer; but far more important than any emotional attachment is what the composer was attempting on a musical level. The very success of Bartók's endeavor sometimes distracts the listener from appreciating that this was a novice effort in which the young composer was still seeking a way in which to express his vision. Much more so than in later works, his influences are readily apparent. The entire structure of the work - from the opening notes that are played by the violins alone - owes much to Beethoven's Op. 131. Though the work contains only three movements, these are played without pause just as in the Beethoven quartet. And in the finales of both, themes are likewise recalled from earlier movements. It's only natural that any composer attempting his first string quartet should be aware of and even somewhat intimidated by the masterpieces created by Haydn and Beethoven. But there is much more occurring in Bartók's work than a simple tribute to a great composer. At the time he wrote it, the composer, together with his colleague Kodály, had only just begun his ethnological research into Hungarian folk sources as the two journeyed through the countryside attempting to record this music before it disappeared in the face of modernization. The real challenge Bartók faced was in finding the best means available to incorporate these folk strands into a recognized genre whose traditions had already been formalized a hundred years before. Bartók may not have succeeded completely in this first attempt, but he here took a major step forward.
A lapse of eighteen years occurred between the composition of the No. 1 and that of the Quartet No. 3, completed in 1927. As one might expect, the latter was a much more mature and innovative work. Although written in four parts, the piece consisted of a single movement to be played without pause. As such, it was the shortest and most compact of Bartók's quartets and the music for strings incredibly dense. For the first time, the composer made use of various techniques - sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge), jeté (bouncing the bow off the strings), and col legno (playing with the wood of the bow) - that would come to characterize his later writing for strings. He also employed a distinctive form of pizzicato in which the string bounced back with a snap against the wooden fingerboard. Listening to it, one is conscious of a much more modernist outlook. Not only is the quartet concentrated in its form, it moves forward with such intensity that it calls to mind the thrust of machine driven pistons.
By time Bartók completed the Quartet No. 5, whose performance ended the recital, he was an internationally known composer. It was composed in 1934, appropriately enough as a commission from that tireless champion of modern chamber music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was the only work Bartók completed that year and was really the first of the great works he was to produce in the 1930's. Like the No. 4, the five movements that comprise this piece can be seen as forming an "arch" in which the fourth movement mirrors the second, and the fifth mirrors the first to create the pattern ABCBA. In the same manner, the themes of the fourth and fifth movements are the inverse of those of the second and first. In other words, they are played "upside down." Additionally, the two slow movements, the adagio molto and the andante, exemplify the composer's nachtmusik characterized by dissonance and nature sounds as well as an overwhelming sense of solitude.
Although I have never attended a recital by the Jerusalem Quartet, I have heard several of their performances of the Shostakovich quartets broadcast by CMS and have been impressed by their virtuosity. I look forward to hearing the second installment of Bartók's quartets next week.