The Chiara String Quartet performed Part 2 of its two-part presentation of the Complete String Quartets of Béla Bartók Friday night at Bargemusic, the floating concert hall at Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn. As at the first concert (reviewed here), the quartet performed three Quartets – this time Nos. 1, 3, and 5 – by heart. And as before, cellist Gregory Beaver, violist Jonah Sirota, and violinists Hyeyung Julie Yoon and Rebecca Fischer – seemed to gain a deep communicative advantage from memorization.
In the Chiara’s assured reading, String Quartet No. 1 did not seem a work of a composer first feeling his way in a new format. Beginning with a melancholy hum from the violins, the somber first movement sings in glissandos and daring dissonances. The second movement continues to walk dark corridors but with hasty steps, as if anxious to escape, suspense and excitement growing until suddenly in the third movement (there are no breaks) we’re in a chase scene, maybe in a James Bond movie, a verbatim folk song becoming a sky full of storm clouds and racing to a lightning finish with startling creativity.
Beaver pointed out that by 1927 when Bartók wrote String Quartet No. 3, his absorption of folk music had brought him to the point of “writing entirely original music that sounds like folk music.” The second movement “Allegro” contains a prime example of original folk/dance music, with surprising rhythmic variety. The third and final movement accelerates into a cauldron of percussive harmonies with an ending that sneaks up on you.
Bartók began building his five-movement Quartet No. 5 from mere two-note motives and brief chromatic runs, with much more complexity in the rhythms than in the notes (half a century before heavy metal and progressive rock did similar things). The slow second movement placed its own two-note phrases amid gentle trills before resolving into decisive chords, first minor and then major, through which three string players together sounded uncannily like a pipe organ under keening melodies from the first violin. Echoing the whole piece’s arc structure, this beautiful movement dies away with a return of two-note phrases and trills.
The Scherzo that followed couldn’t have been more of a contrast, with coruscating mobs of noise giving way to a stately dance quickly devolving into more noise. But, though “scherzo” means “joke,” it’s in the titanic fifth and final movement that Bartók plays his biggest joke, a straightforward major-key moment amid cascades of sound and countless whipping sixteenth notes all in complex rhythms. How in the world, I asked myself, did they memorize this movement? The brain boggles.
Memorization aside, the Chiara Quartet’s bravado and enthusiasm for Bartók’s six string quartets as demonstrated by their sensitivity and dedicated energy in these two concerts have made a superb case not only for the works’ intrinsic worth but for their relevance as emblems of 20th century music “getting it right” – of how one highly idiosyncratic composer made a lasting statement by creating a challenging and thought-provoking style rooted in the music of “the folk.” It brings to mind the old saw, attributed to various famous people but ever true: “It’s all folk music. Ever seen a horse play music?”