The Chiara String Quartet performed Part 1 of its two-part presentation of the Complete String Quartets of Béla Bartók Friday night at Bargemusic, the floating, swaying concert hall at Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn. In a remarkable feat of synchronized memorization, the quartet performed Quartets No. 2, 4, and 6 by heart, a technique that seems to give the musicians – cellist Gregory Beaver, violist Jonah Sirota, and violinists Hyeyung Julie Yoon and Rebecca Fischer – especially broad lines of communication, greatly benefitting the works.
Though moods and techniques vary greatly throughout Bartók’s quartets, the works share a modernistic yet accessible character. There is so much going on in the first movement of String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, it feels almost as if the composer hadn’t quite figured out how to corral his seething creativity as he engaged with the modern modes of 20th century music along with the influence of the field recordings of folk music he was making in Europe and North Africa. (Cellist Gregory Beaver played an enlightening sample of the latter for us on his smartphone).
The movement opened with question-like phrasing as if to ask, “Where are we going?” Intensely lyrical sound thrusts featuring the viola and cello in the same range led to a beautiful mellow trio-like section, followed by a return to the angular punches, making a forceful introductory statement for the evening.
Insistent “tribal” dance rhythms defined the argumentative second movement, interspersed with humor and a quiet suspenseful segment suggestive of a swarm of insects. The musicians conveyed all this with a fine balance between lightness of touch and solid synchronized rhythm-making.
Sad and dissonant, the final movement featured mournful conversations between the violins and the cello and viola. It struck me that a composer in a more traditional frame of mind would have made this the second movement, and the second the third. Bartók must have wanted to make a point of leaving us with a lament.
Beaver described String Quartet No. 4 in C major as “Bartók at his happiest point.” The composer was “creating a new folk music that does not live in one place, that can work for any of us.” And “folk” is just what the first of the quartet’s five brief movements evokes: a crowd of people talking, amid dissonant avant-garde passages.
The muted (“con sordino”) quality of the second movement, “Prestissimo,” actually provided a showcase for heightened expressivity on the part of the Chiara, with half-crazed glissandi and a section that suggested humming bees.
The ensemble made the rainbow harmonies of the slow third movement things of great beauty as Beaver executed with both delicacy and fulness flitting cello melodies atop equally delicate ambient soundscapes woven by the violins and viola, after which the group demonstrated a different kind of facility in the all-pizzicato fourth movement with nearly perfect precision and unexpectedly rich tone. And those North African rhythms came to the fore in the forthright final movement, in which the musicians displayed again their impressive ability to play as one instrument, perhaps enhanced by having eliminated the need to refer to sheet music.
Written in 1939 and under increasing Nazi repression – Bartók, who’d been very public with his antifascist views, reluctantly left Hungary and emigrated to the United States as the war broke out – the four movements of final String Quartet, No. 6 in D major, are each marked with the musically unusual term “Mesto” (“sad”). A mournful tone predominates, beginning with the weeping solo viola introduction. An agitated sort of sadness characterizes much of the first movement, punctuated with reflective passages. The musicians asserted their fine feel for dynamics here.
After a slow and thoughtful (“Mesto”) introduction, the “sarcastic march” (as Beaver described it) of the second movement kicks in. Angular, uncertain, stopping and starting, the march gives way to a weird, dreamlike interregnum with a high melody from the cello as the viola plucks guitar-like chords. The march tempo reasserts itself and the movement ends with an extremely high violin figure that I would have believed to be a fife had I not had the violinist in plain view.
An arch Burletta (“burlesque”) follows, its touches of carnivalesque playfulness not dispelling the overall sadness. It ends abruptly, giving way to a finale with a sad, religious feeling, full of really pretty harmonies that Mozart might have understood. Unrelentingly sad but not tragic, grieving but not despairing, the piece ends with a gentle, surprisingly traditional and marvelously affecting major chord.
If I’ve written more about the pieces than the performances, it’s because I’d never heard these works performed in concert before, and am fully digesting them for the first time. The musicians rendered them with maturity and excitement. The Chiara Quartet is not a flashy group, but a serious foursome full of both youthful energy and studied intensity, solidly versed in the emotional complexity of these pieces and technically and interpretively up to the task. They obviously love these challenging works, enough to have memorized them, and the payoff was plain to hear and see on that rocking barge last night.
The Chiara Quartet completes the program with a performance of Bartók’s first, third, and fifth string quartets on October 17, 2014. Visit Bargemusic online for tickets.