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Let Them Do the Bar Talk

The Bartók Quartet, the umpteenth highlight of the National Gallery of Art's free concert series (2490th concert, March 21), looks like a string quartet should look. Four friendly, elder gentlemen—all in various combinations of sophistication and heftiness—entered the stage with their respective instruments. One of the instruments, in particular, is rather famous. In fact, it was almost daunting to sit within feet of one of the most famous violins—the "Hamma" Stradivarius from 1731, played by first violinist Péter Komlós. Its date of creation makes the violin, by a rough and cheeky estimate, almost as old as the four members of the quartet combined.

The program first featured Mozart's Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 458 ("The Hunt"). In Mozart you might expect a quartet from Budapest (formed in 1957, in the first six years playing as the Komlós Quartet) to play the quartet (itself 54 years younger than Mr. Komlós's violin) in a more European "Coffee House style"; that is, more Classically and less Romantically inclined than many American string quartets tend to play Haydn and Mozart. But, no, it was energetic, communicative, alive, almost driven; this was a very fine appearance, if perhaps a bit routine in a few moments of the Adagio. Of course, it helps that this quartet of Mozart's "Haydn Quartets" is one of the best Mozart ever wrote (next to the "Dissonance" quartet, K. 465, which was played by the Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress; see Ionarts review on October 28). As always, the well-informed, well-written program notes by Elmer Booze were as helpful to me as they surely were to everyone else.

Added commentary by Charles Downey:

This concert was my introduction to the Dvořák waltzes, and I will soon be acquiring a score of the piano version of these pieces as a result. In the two pieces that the quartet played, there was an air of Viennese lightheartedness (as in the "call to the dance" of the first violin in the fourth waltz), but also a measure of modern sound, particularly in the chromatic coloration of the first waltz. As the first half of the program lasted only about 45 minutes (and the whole concert only an hour and a half, with intermission: the guards were shooing us from the building by 8:30 pm), the Bartók Quartet could have played the other six of these waltzes, if I had had my way.

The Stradivarius violin played in this concert, I agree, has a remarkably potent sound, especially in the high E string playing. This is at least partially responsible for the lush full sound for which the Bartók Quartet is often praised. The other members play what are described in the program as "the finest instruments of the eighteenth century," without any more detail. The extensive pizzicati played by Mr. Mezö on the cello part in the second movement (Andante con moto quasi allegretto) of the Beethoven were beautifully executed, too, graceful at times and raucously sforzando when needed. For me, this is the highlight of this quartet. Although it does not actually set any Russian folk melodies (like the first and second quartets in op. 59), this somber and almost gloomy Andante is an extraordinary look forward, in 1805 to 1806, to the enigmatic works of Beethoven's late period. Unfortunately, the blindingly fast contrapuntal final movement had a toe-tapping spectator in front of me furiously tapping like a metronome. At least he was listening to the music: his wife, seated next to him, read a magazine for the duration of the concert.

After Mozartian delight came jollity, courtesy of Dvořák. Two waltzes—Dvořák transcribed these two of eight solo piano pieces (op. 54) for string quartet—were the filler before the intermission. (The works stem from 1880 and—rough estimate again—are just about older than any one quartet member.) The Mozart had been so promising already, the Dvořák, too, made me miss the quartet's namesake's work on the musical menu. That Dvořák liked the two particular waltzes hardly surprises; they are much more than "just quaint" and suggest both a hint of Bohemian forest folksiness and Viennese salon spirit. Very enjoyable little filler, indeed. The Stradivarius, too, got to show the punch it packs without showing off. (Is it just my imagination or does it really soar more than other instruments?)

After intermission, it was the third of the "Rasumovsky" quartets (op. 59, no. 3, in C major) of Beethoven that promised much. It delivered. Indeed, it was astounding enough that it made me stop my usual scribbling and instead focus on the music. The first two movements (only the first long repeat was cut) took me in, especially. While the Beethoven quartets of op. 59 are not everyone's favorites, I have a big soft spot for them in my heart. (Probably because for years I carried the Végh Quartet's splendid recording of no. 2 and 3 on the Valois label around with me, while all the other Beethoven quartets languished in a box at home.) At any rate, the quartet, with a good number of similarities to op. 59, no. 2, was a tremendous joy. The Bartók Quartet played them with sophistication but involvement, with zest but dignity. Not so much "Heroic"—which is the other nickname for this quartet—but perhaps something akin to a 1920s "urban chic"? Mature versions, aged like good single malt, served straight up.

The audience rightly applauded with some enthusiasm the outstanding efforts of Messrs. Géza Hargitai (violin), Géza Németh (viola), László Mezö (cello), and, of course, Péter Komlós. Unfortunately, the audience stopped just shy of eliciting an encore from these gentlemen, which is a shame. Perhaps that would have, could have been the elusive Bartók? Even so, after the Takács Quartet's fabulous concert at the Freer Gallery, this was another cultural "home run" for Hungary, witnessed by Mme. Peják, the Hungarian Ambassador's wife. I am looking forward to more.

Recordings mentioned in this review available at Amazon:
Végh Quartet, Beethoven String Quartets, no. 8 and 9 (oop)
Bartók Quartet, Complete Beethoven String Quartets
Salomon String Quartet, The "Haydn" String Quartets
The Lindsay String Quartet, Dvořák Waltzes

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