Review by Beagle February 3, 2007 (9 of 11 found this review helpful)
|Please see Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Bartók: Bartók the Magyar
My prayers have been answered, not only by two-thirds of the Bartók Six Quartets on SACD, but by very good SACDs. These recordings are spacious and clear, neither harsh nor overly mellow. I am listening in stereo, and the cello has good presence and the viola is audible. A modest addition of ambience from my powered Hafler circuit enhances the presence of the lower strings, so I imagine multi-channel will be quite satisfying. The venue feels like a studio, but – my one complaint – neither case nor liner notes specify place nor date of recording, grrrr.
The Parkanýi’s playing is equal to any other version I own: Magyar (1961), Novák (1965), Emerson (1988). The pace that the Parkanýi take is on the slow side, as is that of the two hungarian quartets. Slow is good: magyar melancholy can’t be rushed (the Emersons should be issued a speeding ticket…). Sándor Végh was this quartet’s mentor in its infancy, and the Végh Quartet doesn’t speed….
A FEW NOTES ABOUT THE EARLY QUARTETS
In Haydn’s younger days, the common form was ‘a tre’, and he wrote reams of Trios, but before he was 40, Haydn et al. had changed that to ‘a quattro’, the Quartet – and the Trio has been in the background ever since. At its worst, the first violin struts his stuff while three other musicians work hard at being drab background: ‘quatuor brillant’. At its best, the quattro partes converse like four independent but agreeable friends: ‘quatuor dialogue’. That is the form in question.
The 15 year-old Bartók had more than a century of exemplars before him when he wrote his first quartet in 1896. However, the quartet had fallen into a slough of neglect after Mendelssohn, with larger, looser forms entertaining bigger crowds in bigger venues. This dark age of the quartet is full of ‘small symphonies’ by late romantics on a small budget, plus a few notable contributions from Smetana, Dvorák, Franck-- and of course Debussy’s masterpiece of 1893. Bartók’s first quartet is lost, as is his second; all I know about his third quartet is that it is ‘unpublished’. So we don’t know if the teenaged Béla set out to equal Beethoven’s last efforts on his first try, or to do a pastiche of Debussy (I suspect he was just writing bad Brahms). A dozen years later, when a 27 year-old Bartók published Op. 7, the work which we know as “Quartet No. 1”, he was ready to play ball with the big boys. Just-short-of-thirty is the age at which 20th century composers tend to write their first (and last) quartet (it is also the age at which Newton, Einstein and numerous other ‘geniuses’ do the work that makes them famous).
Two years earlier, Schönberg had published his string quartet Op. 7: a completely different beast from Bartók’s. In the same year Zoltán Kodály, Béla’s fellow folksong-collector, published his first quartet (maybe the two were daring one another on?). And Frank Bridge and Vaughn Williams both published some fraf’lly English quartets. Kodály’s quartet is certainly interesting, but no-one would call Bridge’s variations on ‘Londonderry Air’ comparable to Bartók’s work. His first non-juvenile quartet sits solidly beside his sixth, written thirty years later. The quartets do develop in ways – three movements becomes five becomes four -- but to my ears The Six form a single integral work of art, a ‘quartet set’ in the 18th century sense.
Bartók’s first two quartets form a good pairing; both are ‘quartetti piccoli’, three-movement pieces. To an interesting extent they are two sortings of the same musical material. Listen to the opening bars of movement 1 of No. 1 and then movement 6 of No.2: rather similar? Likewise movement 2 of No. 1 and 1 of No. 2: one can easily get lost in this disc.
QUARTET NO. 1
I detect a tinge of Viennese romanticism in the melodic motives here, but the distinctive magyar intervals and discontinuous rhythms are firmly in place: Bartók has abandoned the siren-call of Vienna and found his own voice. The three movements of Op. 7 are ordered by increasing pace and energy, starting with a somnolent Lento and slowly accelerating to a manic Vivace. By 1909, Béla had secured the teaching position he would hold for 30 years, had married a young piano student and together the two of them had a Béla Junior on the way. I don’t know if one can hear any of this in the quartet, unless it is the high spirits of a father-to-be which animate the last movement.
QUARTET NO. 2
Five years later, and a Great War has swept across Europe, but quartets are still being written: by Ives, Loeffler, Szymanowski, Tailleferre,Villa-Lobos, Weil and many lesser lights. An unprecedented music publishing spree, which will span the Twenties, is about to begin. An auspicious moment, but Bartók’s Second Quartet underwhelmed the critics (romanticism was the flavour of the day). Béla had just written The Miraculous Mandarin, and it also was a disaster (when it was finally produced, ten years later). Béla was emphatically not in tune with the times, but their loss is our gain.
This three-movement work can be viewed as a Bartók arch-form, with two melancholic ‘piers’ anchoring a frenetic ‘keystone’. The string effects are more elaborate that in No. 1, with plenty of pizzicati in the capriccioso. To my ears, the melodic material of this central movement foreshadows that of Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, written a decade later. It has its own logic and behaviour, seemingly arguing with itself about what it should be doing (good theme and counter-theme). Ironically, it ends more or less the way its première was received: with a rather unhappy ‘thud’.
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