Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet (2d ed., 1998)
Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet (1st ed., 1985)
Bartók composed the second quartet from 1915 to 1917, when he lived in the suburbs of Budapest, of which period scholar János Kárpáti says that "the general worries of the war-torn world made his life difficult." It overlapped with the composition of another major work of that time, The Wooden Prince, with which it shares many experimental qualities. As we have heard from the Takács before in this piece (at the Corcoran in 2008 and 2006), the contrapuntal lines were clear throughout, savoring the dissonances of the opening (E-flat in second violin against D in the viola) and hammering them later. The folk-like accelerando and decelerando of the second movement reflected the quartet's collaborations with Muzsikás, an ensemble dedicated to performing Hungarian folk music: a music of fits and starts, half-sung serenades, jokes told and repeated. This set up a stark contrast with the devastating lament of the third movement, the first violin of Edward Dusinberre keening over sighed dissonances.
The fourth quartet, composed in 1928 and 1929, came on the heels of no. 3, set in a palindromic form that became a Bartók hallmark, five movements arranged symmetrically around the central slow movement. As heard when the group performed it last, in 2012, it is a compendium of odd effects -- harmonics, rhythmic ostinati, growls. In particular, the second and fourth movements, based on unusual sounds (muted strings in the former, plucked ones in the latter), dazzled, with magical cat-meow glissandi punctuating the madcap buzzing in the second movement and an almost banjo-like consistency in the pizzicato. The night music of the central slow movement featured gorgeous solos from cello (folksy), viola (almost self-throttling), and violin (like a night bird).
Only the first quartet, heard the first night, and the sixth quartet, composed in 1939, had not been reviewed live in these pages before from the Takács. As the musicians sat down to play no. 6, a feeling of sadness descended over me, as I realized that the cycle had to come to an end. Geraldine Walther, who was once an associate principal in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, gave a plangent reading of the opening viola solo, setting the tone of tragedy that begins each movement and is left hovering in the room at the end of the work. The march of the second movement was weighty and often grotesque, with a folk music-like middle section, while the Burletta of the third movement was likewise worthy of Shostakovich, the improvised accompaniment of a silent film farce. These two concerts confirmed my belief that one will not hear any other group perform Bartók's string quartets better today than the Takács.