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Quartet on the Cusp with Bartók


Chiara String Quartet (file photo)
Chiara String Quartet (file photo)

The Chiara Quartet powerfully impressed in Bartók. Playing two of the three quartets from memory, their Bartók bowing—on the bridge, on the fingerboard, with the wood striking the string, with martellato, or hammered strokes—fashioned a veritable sound lab in the John Knowles Paine Concert Hall at Harvard University Friday evening. Neither was there any paucity of energy in their takes on Bartók’s first, third, and fifth. After a good deal of smoke, real flames broke out in the Finale of the fifth.

A near-packed house for an all-Bartók show such as this speaks volumes about our community of music lovers. At 8:08 pm, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver took the stage. An illuminating introduction to the program began with Beaver pulling out a cell phone to have us hear “Fly Peacock Fly,” one of the staggering numbers of folksongs Béla Bartók had recorded early in the 20th century. Chiara went on to play the end of the third movement from the first quartet where the composer “worked some other stuff to go along with that folksong.” That was a powerful connection of folk and art. And with that in mind, Beaver suggested we put aside ideas of dissonance and approach the quartets as “a feeling of community.”

From an earlier BMInt interview Rebecca Fisher opined: “To our knowledge, no other quartet has performed the complete cycle of Bartok Quartets from memory. The Kolisch Quartet, well-known for their playing by heart, certainly played the Bartok quartets (Bartok’s sixth quartet is dedicated to the group, and they premiered the work), but we are not aware whether they ever performed the complete Bartok cycle by heart.”

Why Chiara read the shortest of all the quartets, the third, which lasts 15 minutes, rather than playing it from memory, I do not know. Did they feel they were not ready? Chiara certainly displayed enormous control throughout the evening, be it by memory or not. As Blodgett Artist-in-Residence the young foursome appeared on the cusp of penetrating the soul and spirit of Bartók string language.

Again, from the interview: “It is always a special experience to finish the cycle (and any concert, for that matter) with the transcendent ending of the sixth quartet.” This would apply to the fifth’s Finale marked Allegro vivace, which caught fire, emphatically locating and confirming Bartók’s realm of sensation, sound, string—and spirit. While many a moment of a particular kind flared throughout the quartets, as water is to fire, Chiara’s disposition of overworking fortes and underworking pianos intermittently put a damper on any gestalt-type outcome.

Any number of passages of such could be cited. What appears in the score as piano often became forte and forte, fortissimo. For an obvious example, the opening of the third quartet did not sound or feel at all pianissimo, as it was too loud and overcharged with energy. Swooning, especially in the violins, distracted, reducing melodic shape to a series of individual notes. One such shape was the rising and falling motive in thirds that starts the scherzo of the fifth quartet. Marked piano, a crescendo-diminuendo from Chiara turned this simple wisp into a jerky phrase. This repeated motive, now looking in on itself, disturbed momentum.

Chiara came close, though, to making it quite a night of Bartók. They will perform three even numbered quartets Friday, April 11th. Unfortunately, the Takács Quartet will do the same quartets on the same night at Jordan Hall. And don’t neglect to consider the Borromeo, when they essay all six of Bartok’s quartets at Jordan Hall on May 14th.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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