in: Reviews

October 7, 2012

Bartok’s, Beethoven’s Last-Minute Changes Shown


The first presentation of the Cape Cod Music Festival’s Fall Session, on Saturday in Wellfleet’s Congregational Church, was more than a performance – it was an opportunity to see into the minds and hearts of two great composers. Our guide was Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo quartet. Illustrating from the original manuscripts projected on a large screen, he led us through the last minute changes that Bartók made in his String Quartet No. Six and that Beethoven made in his F major Razumovsky Quartet. These alterations dramatically changed the structure and the meaning of those great works. The Borromeo then played – for the first time in public – the original ending of the Bartók Sixth, an upbeat and optimistic concoction of Hungarian dance and folk music.

But the sixth quartet was composed in sad times for Hungary and for Bartók. Fascism and anti-Semitism were sweeping the country, Bartók’s beloved mother was dying, and Bartók had already decided to leave for the United States and never return. The sixth quartet opens with a melody in the solo viola marked “Mesto” or sad, and each of the succeeding movements opens with the same melody, augmented and elaborated with increasing complexity. Kitchen explained that at the last minute Bartók decided these were not the times for the optimistic ending. The ending was altered to make the last movement an elegy to his mother, who had finally passed away. The Borromeo played the original ending twice as we watched the score, and then gave us a masterful rendition of the complete quartet in its final form.

The work is in four movements, each beginning with the Mesto theme. The first movement starts with the theme stated piano by the solo viola, and then forcefully in unison by the whole quartet. The development that follows is full of Bartók’s unique semi-dissonant harmonies, discords that resolve periodically into sweet tonality. The combination is disturbing emotionally – a feature of the entire quartet. The movement ends quietly and peacefully in A major. The second movement starts with an elaboration of the sad theme, but soon devolves into complex harmony. The complexity morphs into a parody of a village band playing guitar and other instruments, full of odd portamento, and stomping dance. Perhaps these are memories of the folk music Bartók is leaving behind. The third movement opens again Mesto, and devolves into a Burletto – a musical joke. Once again there are peasant dances, ending with a long section of pizzicato and portamento. The last movement is a quiet and extremely moving elegy on the original theme.

The Borromeo’s performance was exceptional, by parts quiet, melodic, exciting, and ferocious. I especially liked the clarity of each line, unmolested by excessive vibrato.

The second half of the concert was equally fascinating. The manuscript of Beethoven’s Opus 59 No. 1 was projected on the big screen. Kitchen explained that this quartet, at about 40 minutes in length, represented a major departure from the string quartet tradition where each quartet was only about 20 to 25 minutes long. But in looking closely through the manuscript Kitchen noticed a second ending in the first movement, and a place in the second movement where a repeat notation had been knifed out.

Clearly in Beethoven’s original concept the first and second movements were in the form of a W, where the main theme and its development were presented, the main and the development were repeated, and then the main theme played again. If these repeats were followed the piece would have been far larger than it is in the final version, and Beethoven decided at the last minute to delete the repeats.  (Kitchen pointed out that there is a similar repeat in the last movement that Beethoven decided to keep.) But Beethoven did not give up on the W symmetry. It occurs in several of his later compositions.

After the explaining these and other major changes the Borromeo played the final version, with Kitchen playing from the original manuscript as we followed it on the big screen. I asked him how he could possibly do this, given the number of cross-outs and second thoughts. He said he actually found it easy, and the presence of the changes gave great insight into the mind of Beethoven as he was composing. It was impossible for me to both follow the score and to hear all the lines, so I opted to just listen to the performance, which was as delightful as the performance of the Bartók.

I will end with some personal comments about the performance and the venue. The Wellfleet Congregational Church is a relatively large and reverberant space, and the sound in the rear is often rather muddled. The small audience wisely crowded in close to the players, where every detail of the performance could be heard. I grabbed a seat in the first row, right in front of the quartet. The sound there was ideal – clear, precise, and surrounded by a beautiful sense of the hall. The clarity made an enormous difference to the beauty of the Bartók. In preparing for the concert I listened to two other performances of the quartet, one of which was recorded by the Borromeo some years ago. In both cases the listening conditions were less than ideal, and I was unable to hear the four instruments individually. Bartók’s unusual harmonies often seemed senseless and grating.

But I revel in hearing how a composer has chosen to set the four lines of a quartet, and how the performers have played them. I could do this easily in the front row of the Congregational Church. Suddenly the harmonies were not senseless – they grew inevitably out of Bartók’s fascinating sense of voice leading and line. With the ability to hear each voice the harmonies were both appropriate and beautiful. I would not have been able to hear the beauty of these harmonies in the back of the church, because all the instruments blend together.

Acoustic clarity – the kind of clarity that allows a person to hear multiple voices at the same time – is underappreciated in current hall design, where the emphasis is only on reflections and reverberation. A little reverberation is wonderful, but too many reflections muddle the sound. In many halls far too many of the seats are beyond the distance where real clarity exists. Although music in these halls can be enjoyable even in distant seats, something vitally important to the composers and the musicians is lost. Our wonderful Boston halls – Symphony, Jordan, and Sanders – are great exceptions, but they are rare.

As we helped the Kitchens’ pack the enormous amount of equipment they had brought for the concert a small radio was playing – rather fuzzily – Brahms’ first symphony. The melodies and the harmonies were welcome in spite of the lack of clarity, but an enormous amount of the genius of the music was missing. Bartók played under such conditions might not have been either comprehensible or pleasant.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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