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Kodály Quartet

Kodály String Quartet, 2003The latest chamber music performance in the series of free concerts at the Library of Congress, on November 7, featured the Kodály String Quartet (shown at left in a memorable image like rock musicians on an album cover). I had known this group only by reputation, and the chance to hear them here in Washington was most welcome. (They are on a U.S. tour right now and go from Washington to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.) Students of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music formed the group in Budapest in 1966, and they have become one of the most highly regarded groups in Hungary, with quite an international following because of their recordings. (The present members are Attila Falvay, first violin; Tamás Szabó, second violin; János Fejérvári, viola; and György Éder, cello. None of the founding members still play with the quartet.) To enter the Coolidge Auditorium, you have to pass through a metal detector and send your bags through an X-ray machine. Since one of those machines was malfunctioning Friday night, many of us were delayed getting in but fortunately the start of the performance was delayed. (Those who straggled on the way were seated noisily, following the third movement of the first piece.)

The idea of their program was a chronological cross-section of the formative years (1755-1785) of the string quartet genre's development: three quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, a nice selection from their recording of the complete Haydn string quartets (from Naxos), and one Mozart quartet from the same period as the last of three Haydn pieces. Mozart and especially Haydn are justifiably cited as being largely responsible for creating the genre of the string quartet by taking the forms of chamber music before their time (the trio sonata and the light sort of outdoor music called a divertimento or serenade) and creating something of substance, eventually intended for trained performers rather than amateur players in their own homes. The first piece was Haydn's String Quartet in E major, op. 2, no. 2, composed around 1757. Haydn continued to give his first 30 or so string quartets the title of divertimento, and this piece is one that still reflects the five-movement format of that earlier genre, in this case, with a fast-slow-fast arrangement of tempos for first, third, and fifth movements and minuets in the second and fourth slots. The piece is short and pleasing, with a brief sonata form in its first movement (Allegro), a poignant melody in the second violin in the third movement (Adagio), and an off-kilter tune with a grotesque sforzando on the second beat for humorous effect. The trio of the fourth movement showcases the first violin, and the entire quartet showed off its technical power in a very fast rendition of the fifth movement (Presto).

Then in 1761 Haydn went to work for the Esterházy family, in what is now Hungary, the home of the Kodály Quartet. He continued to transform the genre that would eventually be called the string quartet and, although he still called the six quartets of his op. 20 divertimenti, they are far from that. As in the next piece on the program, the String Quartet in D major, op. 20, no. 4, he settled on the four-movement format that eventually became the norm for most instrumental genres: fast-slow-fast with only one minuet, although the placement of the minuet was still not set in stone. The second movement of this performance was quite striking, with a short, sad song that serves as the basis for three variations. In the first variation, the second violin and viola have a dialogue while the first violin sits silent, and the cello dominates the second variation. When the air returned at the end of this movement, the Kodály Quartet played it very simply, almost without vibrato. The third movement is a Menuet alla zingarese ("in gypsy style") with offbeat accents that create an unsettling effect by trying to reproduce the folk sounds of Hungary. (For remarks on Bartók and Hungarian folk music, see my post on October 24.) The last movement, Presto e scherzando ("fast and jokingly"), seems to be in part a depiction of lots of kinds of laughing, with little twitters in the first violin, a loud up-and-down braying in the second violin, and chortled grace notes, in a charming performance.

After intermission, we moved forward another ten years to Haydn's String Quartet in B Minor, op. 33, no. 1, published in 1781, the year that Mozart settled permanently in Vienna. Lest you think that the typical Washington audience is not informed, I observed one spectator carefully following the performance of this piece with a score. Haydn himself acknowledged that he began to use a new compositional technique in the op. 33 quartets, what he called thematic elaboration, a form of melodic fragmentation and development that would shape the Viennese classical period and reach perhaps its culmination in Beethoven. This performance by the Kodály Quartet was excellent, especially the impressively fast final movement, Presto.

Mozart was so influenced by Haydn's string quartets that he ended up dedicating to him a set of six string quartets now known collectively as the "Haydn quartets" but not actually composed as a group. The final piece on the program was Mozart's String Quartet in G Major, K. 387, composed around 1782. The Haydn quartets were probably first performed by a group of composers in Vienna who met in 1784 to 1785 to play quartets, usually with Haydn on second violin and Mozart on viola, and sometimes with Mozart's father Leopold on violin. K. 387 is a favorite of mine, and I found the Kodály Quartet's performance to be thrilling. The second theme of the first movement (Allegro vivace assai), presented by the second violin, is one of the cheeriest melodies Mozart ever wrote, not laughing like the joking last movement of Haydn's op. 20, no. 4, but something that just makes you feel happy, as if the world really were a bright place filled with kindness. The group also played this quartet's fourth movement (Molto allegro) at a very fast tempo, showing off the fugal writing that is a tribute to what Haydn was doing in his quartets of the same period. The closing theme of this movement is more in the joking mold of Haydn's rondos, with a clownish rhythmic variation when it is repeated.

In a most unusual gesture for a Washington audience, the generous applause at the end of the concert convinced the Kodály Quartet to sit down to play an encore, another very fast finale movement, with a short pianissimo tag after the rondo refrain, a tag that humorously concludes the piece. Although I could not identify it at the time, I suspected that it was a piece by Haydn, which another informed listener has since confirmed by identifying it as the fourth movement (Finale: Presto) from Haydn's String Quartet op. 54, no. 1. This was composed around 1788 and provided a tantalizing look forward into the sublime years of the Viennese classical string quartet.

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