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8.557543-44 - BARTOK: String Quartets (Complete)
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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
The Six String Quartets

The string quartets of Béla Bartók occupy a central position in the classical repertoire of the twentieth century. Not only are they a milestone in the evolution of the quartet literature, but, along with those by Haydn and Beethoven, they provide an overview of their composer’s output at all the main junctures of his career. This might be thought surprising when one remembers that Bartók was a pianist by training and, latterly, by profession, though the store he set by the medium is confirmed by the way in which each of the quartets exemplifies those facets of his music which preoccupied him prior to, and during the course of its composition. It is this, coupled with the intrinsic quality of each work, that gives the cycle its inclusiveness and significance in the context of Western music as a whole.

Although he had written several quartets in his adolescence, Bartók was 27 before he embarked on his first acknowledged work in the medium. While the pieces that precede it, notably the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1904), the Second Orchestral Suite (1907), the Bagatelles for piano (1908) and the First Violin Concerto (1908), evince a gradually evolving persona, only with the First Quartet (1909) did he achieve a convincing amalgam of main influences, notably Strauss and Debussy, such as allows his own voice to come through. Moreover, for all that it recalls these composers in its harmonic intricacy and expressive license, the impact of folk-song, which Bartók had been collecting for barely two years, is already apparent in the rhythmic drive and cumulative momentum that informs this music.

The three movements proceed without pause, such that the second is in constant acceleration, in contrast to the uniform tempo of the first, and with the generally fast finale itself prefaced by a slow introduction. The sighing motif which begins the Lento will permeate all aspects of the piece: whether the expressive polyphony to which it gives rise, or (beginning with reiterated cello chords) the more melodic dialogue which forms the central section. The Allegretto that follows is in constant search of a stable tempo, keeping its material in a state of flux, though with a repeated-note motif as an important formal marker. Its uncertainty is decisively countered by an Introduzione which, by means of unison gestures and solo recitatives, leads to the Allegro vivace, dominated by a folk-like theme initiated by the cello. A more expansive passage divides off the two main sections of this finale, which culminates in a pungent reprise of the main theme and a powerful coda uniting all of the salient ideas in affirmative accord. The years that followed were among the most difficult of Bartók’s career. With the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) having been rejected by the Budapest Opera as unperformable, and the stylistically ambivalent ballet The Wooden Prince (1916) remaining unorchestrated for several years, he largely withdrew from active involvement in musical life to concentrate on his folk-song researches. The length of time that he worked on the Second Quartet (1915-17) is partly explained by this enforced period of isolation, partly by the overriding need to fashion a musical language in which the ‘art’ and ‘folk’ music aspects of his creativity were allowed to find their natural equilibrium. The synthesis has been all but made in the present quartet, which ranks among his most inward and personal achievements.

There are again three movements, this time following the slow-fast-slow format which frequently found favour in the twentieth century. The opening Moderato grows from a searching theme on viola, which, after a modally-inflected idea has provided contrast, propels the impassioned central climax. A varied and intensified recall of the main material leads into the pensively ambivalent close. If this movement marks the limit of Bartók’s late-romantic leanings, the scherzo that follows clearly points the way forward. The motoric rhythms of its main theme and the yearning trio section breathe the spirit of peasant culture, while the scurrying coda anticipates the angular musical expression to come. The finale returns to the inwardness of hitherto, its terse initial motif spawning a freelyevolving theme which together define the harmonic and melodic content of the Lento as a whole. The closing bars are not so much defeatist as fatalistic - as though the composer’s solitude had afforded him a measure of self-recognition.

The intensity of this piece was maintained in those that followed, above all, the brutal pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1919) and the two Violin Sonatas (1921 and 1922), in which Bartók’s music approaches a peak of chromatic intensity. Then, in the unlikely guise of a Dance Suite (1923) written to commemorate the founding of the modern Hungarian capital, he broke through to a harmonically more clearcut manner that was to have profound consequences for the works to come. Three years of relative silence were broken by music written for himself to play, namely the First Piano Concerto, the Piano Sonata, and the Out of Doors suite (all 1926). Then, in the Third Quartet (1927), Bartók achieved an integration of folk idioms with a Beethovenian contrapuntal resource such he as not to surpass.

Although it unfolds as a seamless whole, the quartet comprises two main parts which themselves divide into four sections, the work thus following a sonata-form layout in principle as well as in spirit. The Prima parte presents the principal ideas, respectively ruminative and malevolent, in the manner of an exposition, before an acerbic climax and a modally-inflected codetta. The Seconda parte is launched with a pizzicato idea, which provides the motivation for a tumultuous development of the material heard thus far: many of the playing techniques synonymous with Bartók’s later quartet writing are here used extensively for the first time. At its apex, the music spills over into the Recapitulazione della prima parte, a transformed and generally restrained reprise of the main ideas, with which the work seems to be heading for a muted close. The Coda steals in, however, to draw the motivic threads into a taut continuum, laying bare the music’s harmonic and tonal premises with breathtaking conclusiveness.

While the Fourth Quartet (1928) was to follow barely a year later, its formal precepts could hardly have been more different from the preceding work. Although he had made use of a five-movement ‘arch’ structure as far back as the First Orchestral Suite (1905), it was only in this piece that Bartók fully utilized its potential for maximum expressive variety within a balanced and symmetrical framework.

As in rhythm and harmony, so in tonal orientation does the piece move, as in a palindrome, to the centre and outwards again; though this will not be readily perceived in the opening Allegro, whose vigorous contrapuntal discourse partly conceals a regular sonataform movement, with contrasting main themes, an intensifying central development and an extended coda. The first scherzo, played virtually con sordino throughout, has a restless, spectral air which complements its ceaseless momentum. The slow movement is the epicentre: emerging out of a brooding cello melody, heard against a static harmonic backdrop, it reaches a peak of fervency before returning to its pensive origins. The second scherzo, played pizzicato throughout, is more overtly characterful than its predecessor, an emotional ‘opening-out’ which is pursued in the finale. This transforms the first movement’s expressive territory with appreciably greater zest, before bringing the work to a headlong and exhilarating close.

The formal poise thus attained was to be put to productive use in such subsequent works as the Cantata Profana (1930) and the Second Piano Concerto (1931). The pressures of performing and academic commitments left Bartók little time for composition in the three years that followed, and though the Fifth Quartet (1934) might be thought to continue the essential thinking of its predecessor, its formal aims and expressive content make it an altogether different proposition. At its centre is a scherzo, this time enclosed by two slow movements, while the unwavering emphasis on counterpoint that marks out the previous quartet is here tempered by a harmonic lucidity and an underlying tonal direction, qualities such as combine to make it perhaps the most approachable quartet of Bartók’s maturity.

This greater directness is immediately evident in the opening Allegro, its formal divisions audible at first hearing, and in which reiterated chords endow the music with a more direct tonal trajectory. The contrast between the vigorous and expressive main themes is itself more pronounced, with the latter’s overt lyricism continued in the first slow movement. This is an Adagio whose ethereal beginning evolves into a dialogue of rapt tenderness, only briefly ruffled by the agitated middle section. Marked Alla bulgarese, the scherzo has a distinctive gait as well as a robust humour and, in its trio, a quixotic alternation of textures. The Andante draws on its slow predecessor in a variation of earlier ideas, given focus by the rhythmic devices of walking motion and rapid-fire chords. A long-range developing of material that is intensified in the finale, whose charge through its sonata-form ground-plan is halted by the distorted allusion to a popular song, one which offsets the conclusiveness of the work’s ending to unsettling effect.

Although it saw the emergence of such masterpieces as the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) and the Second Violin Concerto (1938), the second half of the 1930s was to be a time of intense soul-searching for Bartók. Increasingly alienated by the deterioration of the European political landscape in general, and by the increasingly fascistic stance of the Hungarian government in particular, he first banned all performances of his music in his native country, before opting for selfimposed exile in the United States. Understandable, then, that a combined sense of dread and resignation in the face of the inevitable, should permeate all aspects of the Sixth Quartet (1939), composed in the months prior to the outbreak of World War Two.

For all that it adopts the traditional four movements and continues the drive towards a greater tonal and harmonic lucidity of his final decade, the quartet is among Bartók’s most equivocal statements. The first three movements are prefaced by a Mesto theme, which achieves fuller scoring and greater pathos at each return. First, a solo viola presentation leads to a sonata movement whose onward progress is questioned and sidestepped at every formal juncture. Next, a cello rendering with tremolo accompaniment leads to a march whose rhythmic profile is the only stable element in a movement of bitter irony and, in the central section, wrenching emotional intensity. Then, a three-part version leads to a burlesque which pointedly conflates the popular and the grotesque, with the only solace coming in a brief trio. Finally, a full quartet presentation makes the Mesto theme into the subject of the entire last movement, one which pursues an avowedly melancholic path before a conclusion of poised uncertainty.

Even though he was, at length, able, in such works as the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), the Solo Violin Sonata (1944) and the Third Piano Concerto (1945), to surmount the difficulties posed by financial hardship and failing health, Bartók was not to return to the medium of the string quartet. At his death a Viola Concerto was left in semi-drafted form, while the opening bars of a Seventh Quartet bear tantalizing witness to the composer’s continuing commitment to, and belief in the medium. What might have resulted is impossible to guess. Better to focus attention instead on what is left to us, a cycle of quartets whose consistency of form and content is strikingly akin to the sets of six that Haydn frequently composed, and a range and depth of expression such as truly embodies a lifetime of experience.

Richard Whitehouse

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