Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was preoccupied throughout his musical career with the medium of the traditional string quartet (two violins, viola and cello). Even before he entered the Budapest Academy of Music, he had addressed the form as a youth. He composed six quartets from 1908 to 1939 and when he died in 1945, a commission for seventh was in his pocket, with scant notes and ideas. His achievement in this form is phenomenal. He stretched the universe of sonority in this realm beyond the edge of its existence. He created rhythmic passages that continue to challenge even those who are thoroughly familiar with them. His counterpoint amazes. His exploration of form revealed astonishing insights. He places technical and interpretive demands on musicians of the highest caliber. As with the works of Bach and the late quartets of Beethoven, most musicians approach these works with awe and a sense of reverence.

As for the listener, the six Bartók string quartets are like entering the hidden treasure room of an ancient monarch. “Look over here. Look at that. See what I found behind those. What is in this little jeweled box? Owww, I have never noticed that before.” And on and on it goes. New treasures emerge on each hearing. Remembered passages well-up with amazing connections not sensed before and consequently new depth is discovered. Whether you are a casual listener or a serious scholarly listener who explores the many analyses and, maybe even follows the score, you will be rewarded if you can remain focused and open to what is laid out before you.

The listening experience is enhanced even more if you are fortunate enough to hear these quartets performed by one of the half-dozen or so ensembles which can handle the technical demands on both the individual performer and the ensemble, but also is able to bring the mathematical and emotional depth to life. It was my pleasure to have exactly that experience over the course of two evening performances in the Reynolds Industries Theater, presented by Duke Performances.

The Takács Quartet was formed in 1975 by four students at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. They took their name from first violinist Gabor Takács-Nagy. Their North American debut tour took place in 1982 and they have been in high demand here ever since. They are Edward Dusinberre, first violin, an Englishman who joined the Quartet in 1993; Károly Schranz, second violin, founding member from Budapest; Geraldine Walther, viola, who hails from Florida, joined the group in 2005, and András Fejér, cello, another of the founding students from Budapest. Recognized as one of the world’s leading ensembles, the Takács Quartet continues to present innovative and rewarding concerts, outstanding recordings and is frequently the recipient of awards, recognitions and rave reviews.

Friday, April 5: Quartets 1, 3 and 5

String Quartet No. 1 was composed in 1908, completed in January, 1909 and premiered March 19, 1910 in Budapest by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet. It is in three movements, marked 1. Lento, 2. Allegretto and 3. Allegro Vivace. This work was inspired, in part, by Bartók’s unrequited love for the violinist Stefi Geyer. In a letter to her, he referred to the first movement as a funeral dirge. The opening notes trace a motif associated with Geyer in an earlier composition. Intense contrapuntal passages in this movement have been compared to the opening movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14. Bartók adds to this the chromaticism of Wagner, a touch of Hungarian folk music and textures of French Impressionism, such as Ravel, and moves on towards his own unique voice.

The second and third movements pick up the tempo and the mood considerably and the piece ends quite happily. You may feel at times, especially in the third movement, you are hearing Hungarian folk music. However Bartók does not quote folk tunes; neither does he seek to imitate folk music, but he does make extensive use of his knowledge of the genre. The rhythms and spirit of a variety of folk sources infuses much of his compositional output. By the end of the work it is clear that young Bartók is finding his own voice, and is going on beyond Beethoven by creating sounds and forms never before imagined.

My first impression of the Takács Quartet was how comfortably they fit into this music. They performed the first quartet as a late nineteenth century romantic masterpiece in the beginning, but adjusted their approach as the music developed. The violin work by Dusinberre and Schranz was sweet and beguiling; the sound so crystalline and pure. I could almost picture Stefi and Bartók’s grief at her rejection. The energy picked up as the music moved remarkably ahead.

String Quartet No. 3 (1927) was apparently stimulated by hearing Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite; Bartók composed the third quartet in three weeks in September, 1927. It was first performed in London by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet on February 19, 1929. It is an exploration of the extremes of dissonance and harsh string sonorities. This is the shortest of the quartets, lasting only about 15 minutes. It is played in one continuous stretch but is divided into four parts: 1. Prima parte: Moderato, 2. Seconda parte: Allegro, 3. Recapitulazione dell prima parte: Moderato and 4. Coda: Allegro molto. The work is even more harmonically adventurous and contrapuntally complex than Bartók’s previous two string quartets and explores a number of extended instrumental techniques, including sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close as possible to the bridge), col legno (playing with the wood rather than the hair of the bow), glissandi (sliding along the string from one note to another) and the so-called Bartók pizzicato (plucking the string so that it rebounds against the instrument’s fingerboard). You hear sounds you may have never thought possible from four bowed and plucked string instruments.

With the performance of this quartet, I was impressed with how difficult this music is and how accomplished the performance. All four instruments are of equal importance, no one player is the leader. With the tricky rhythms, the ever changing tempi, some very gradual, some sudden, it is necessary for the ensemble to pass entrance cues to each other depending on which one is key at any particular moment. The Takács Quartet is the very definition of instrumental ensemble.

String Quartet No. 5 (1934): Reflecting Bartók’s growing international reputation, this quartet was commissioned by the prominent American patron, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was composed in August and September, 1934 and first performed by the Kolisch Quartet in Washington, DC the following April. Like the fourth quartet, written seven years earlier, it is cast in an arch form; the first and fifth movements each have their own arch structure and mirror each other. The second and fourth movements marked Adagio molto and Andante are great examples of Bartók’s Night Music style, which consists of eerie dissonances, imitation of nature sounds and lonely poignant melodies. The middle of the arch, the third movement, is labeled Scherzo: alla bulgarese. It is in time signatures reflecting Bulgarian folk music: nine quavers in each pair in uneven groups of 4+2+3 in the main scherzo, and ten quavers in groups of 3+2+2+3 in the trio.

There are some truly amazing passages in this quartet and this performance was like bright lights spotlighting some of this extraordinary music. The first thrill came with the performance of the second movement; a warm and deliciously enveloping six-part chorale performed by the lower strings (each instrument plays double-stop). Above the chorale the violin plays a chromatic obbligato, none of the notes of which connect with the chords of the chorale. The magic of this passage is enhanced even more with Bartók night music.

Another thrill came with the chaos segment which occurs in the middle of the middle movement. The musicians are all playing at breakneck speed in the uneven rhythms noted above. The effect is of almost frightening turmoil. It reminds me of the scene in the movie Cabaret where Liza Minnelli leaves a social gathering, parks herself under a trestle and waits for the train to come by to scream at the top of her lungs. She then returns to the social event. I don’t know what Bartók is screaming at here, but I do know that when all settles down and we enter the exceptional beauty of the Andante fourth movement, I feel cleansed, calm and somehow refreshed.

Saturday, April 6: Quartets 2, 4 and 6

String Quartet No. 2 was written between 1915 and October 1917 in Hungary while life was made difficult by the war. The work is in three movements: 1. Moderato, 2. Allegro molto capriccioso and 3. Lento. The first movement bears the influence of Debussy. Basic elements of the first and third movements are derived from the opening motifs. The second movement is a scherzo full of drive with frequent changes in tempo. The Lento is a lament that is an irresistible expression of sadness and resignation.

This quartet is Bartók’s reaction to the devastation in Europe in WW I. The most impressive aspect of this performance was the ensemble mastery of the second movement with all of its bewildering tempo changes. This sardonic peasant dance was so amazing. And then the overwhelming lento movement left us almost without hope. It truly captured the mood of the time.

String Quartet No. 4 was written from July to September, 1927 in Budapest almost immediately after no. 3. The work is in a five movements arch form: 1. Allegro, 2. Prestissimo, con sordino, 3. Non troppo lento, 4. Allegretto pizzicato, and 5. Allegro molto. The first movement is thematically related to the last, and the second to the fourth with the third movement standing alone serving as a sort of keystone, or kernel, as Bartók called it. This arch architecture was not an idea he brought to the music from outside, but rather it grew from inside the thematic development of the music.

In this quartet, the composer employs a similar harmonic language to that of the third quartet. The remarkable thing about this work is the way he expands the sonic capacity of the traditional string quartet. For the whole of the second movement all four instruments play with mutes at an almost impossible speed. The third movement is an exotic cello solo, with equally exotic accompaniment from the other instruments. The entire fourth movement features pizzicato in a variety of styles. It is barely imaginable that this same set-up: violins, viola and cello, is what Haydn and Mozart wrote for.

String Quartet No. 6 was written from August to November, 1939. It was started in an Alpine cottage provided to him by the Swiss conductor, Paul Sacher and finished in Budapest. From his notes, it is clear that he intended to end this quartet with a lively and optimistic peasant dance. However, learning of his mother’s death, dealing with worsening Nazi atrocities and facing the inevitability of his having to leave his beloved homeland, he turned instead to the present Mesto (sadly) theme. The four movements are marked 1. Mesto – Vivace, 2. Mesto – Marcia, 3. Mesto – Burletta, 4. Mesto – Molto tranquillo.

Each movement opens with a slow melody marked mesto. The first one is an unaccompanied solo for viola, played with pathos by Walther. The second movement opened with the deeply moving cello of Fejér. The third movement mesto, longer than the other two and more developed, started off with the violins (Dusenberre and Schranz) in duet. The main part of the third movement, marked Burletta (joke) is a raukus tune played by the violins a quarter-tone apart. It was delightful. Then in the fourth movement, the mesto material, with reminiscences of the first movement material, takes up the entire movement. It concludes with a whisper.

What an ending to this two-evening survey of the string quartets of Béla Bartók. As the last vibrations of the music faded into silence, all the musicians froze in fixed positions for a good fifteen to twenty seconds. Not a sound was heard in the auditorium. Then as this brilliant performance slipped into memory, the capacity audience burst into appreciative applause.