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22.1.14

Takács Plays Bartók, Part 1

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
(2d ed., 1998)

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
(1st ed., 1985)
One of the most interesting things that the Fortas Chamber Concerts series, at the Kennedy Center, does is to host a complete cycle of a composer's string quartets (pace Will Robin). The last of these we reviewed was the Shostakovich set performed by the Emerson Quartet in 2007 and 2008. As a followup to the appearance of the Takács Quartet on the series in 2012, which featured a memorable performance of Béla Bartók's fourth quartet, the series has engaged the group to present a complete cycle of the Hungarian composer's string quartets. History has shown that we will endure pretty much anything to hear the Takács Quartet play, so a little snow was not about to keep me home for the first of the two concerts, heard last night in the Terrace Theater.

In one sense, the scores of the Bartók string quartets trace one composer's absorption of the musical trends of the first half of the 20th century -- something that composer George Perle, an acute analyst, noted almost fifty years ago. The Takács's division of the six quartets, all of the odd-numbered quartets the first evening and the evens the second, makes it possible to hear that trajectory twice. Beginning with the first quartet, the only one composed before World War I, they gave Bartók's exploration of more Romantic tonal harmony a heated rendition. Bartók began the piece just after his obsession with the young violinist Steffi Geyer had come to its end: scholar János Kárpáti puts the dates of composition, from sketches to publication, at 1907 to 1909. Kárpáti describes an annotation the composer made in the score of the firts violin concerto around the same time -- a date in 1907 and the word Jászberény, which Geyer has interpreted as a reference to the time that Bartók likely fell in love with her, when she and her brother invited the composer as a guest in their relatives' house in that city. The broken seventh chord that begins the first quartet's first movement is a variation of the so-called "Steffi Geyer-motif," leading Kárpáti to describe the movement as "the concentrate of the Violin Concerto." The two pieces are the closest, in Kárpáti's estimation, that Bartók came to a close imitation of the longing love-death style of harmony and melodic writing he admired in Wagner. These are the qualities that the Takács Quartet brought out so admirably, each instrument's line sounding so beautiful on its own and integrated into the whole.


Other Reviews:

Zachary Woolfe, Taking On a Master and His Many Complexities (New York Times, January 22)

George Grella, Compelling and mysterious, the inner Bartók is explored by the Takács Quartet (New York Classical Review, January 19)
Already by the end of the first quartet, Bartók seems to have rejected the post-Wagnerian style and begun to experiment with harsher sounds. He entered his third quartet, composed in 1927, in the Philadelphia Musical Fund Society competition, and it won. Last heard from the Takács at the Corcoran in 2004, it shows the composer playing with every possible kind of hard-edged sound and the musicians of the Takács wrung all the energy from it that they could. Their Bartók is so pleasing, though, because they find beauty and balance even in the oddest sounds: beautifully tuned clusters, sighing pizzicato glissandi (a specialty of cellist András Fejér), clacking bow bounces and other percussive effects. Bartók showed a way forward for modern composition in his last two quartets, represented here by no. 5 (last heard from the Takács at the Corcoran in 2008, when we called for them to perform the complete quartets of Bartók here in Washington). Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who had a great ear for talent, commissioned this quartet, ensuring that its world premiere would be right here in Washington, at the Library of Congress in 1935. Post-Romantic retrogression was not the way, but neither was the total abandonment of tonality, for the latter was difficult to reconcile with the folk music that he had spent so much time studying and preserving. If pressed, I would choose the fifth quartet as my favorite of the cycle, and the Takács gets all of the gestures and sounds compressed into its five-movement arch, symmetries within symmetries: the singing of frogs and buzz of insects, the folk dance rhythms, the send-up of a Viennese serenade, here played not too beautifully, with a sense of the grotesque.

The cycle concludes tonight, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, and tickets still remain.

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