At Paine Hall on Friday night, the Chiara Quartet concluded both their cycle of the Bartok quartets and their six-year long residency at Harvard as the Blodgett Artists-in-Residence. They played the “second” set of three quartets—the Second, Fourth and Sixth— – and as they did with their first set, they played two of them from memory. Out of the entire cycle, only the Second and Third were played with the music.
Playing from memory means more than just keeping track of notes and beats, of course. In addition to the composer’s own expressive markings, most players mark up their parts with a variety of aids to memory, everything from fingerings and reminders about accidentals to interpretive decisions made by the group. As I chose not to follow in the score, I can’t speak directly to how closely they hewed to the score; our reviewer of their first concert identified some choices in the Fifth Quartet that he found contrary to Bartok’s marking. It was clear, however, that the quartets played without the music had a free, improvisatory quality that those played with the score lacked. Whether this freedom was a benefit to the music or not depended on the quartet in question. The Chiaras seem especially drawn to the quartets that demonstrate strong folk elements—cellist Gregory Beaver made a point at both concerts of playing excerpts from Bartok’s own field recordings to draw connections with the music about to be performed. On this evening he played us some Arabic music, which he described as “rhyming” with the music in the Fourth Quartet. First violinist Rebecca Fisher and violist Jonah Sirota played figures from the piece to demonstrate the resemblance. When they play from memory, the perception of rhythm is altered: there is a constant underlying pulse, but it is no longer embodied in a page in front of the players, but is a shared perception of the passage of time. The music was never imprecise; but there was a sense that the rhythmic synchronization was less rigid, constructed moment by moment. Shared rests are silences filled with potential for surprise. The sense of experimentation and freedom is infectious; the fast movements of the Fourth induced low ripples of laughter in the audience at several moments. The Chiaras threw themselves into the rough dance music with abandon, and most of the Fourth Quartet is fast music. In the slow middle movement, Beaver’s cello solo was a brusque and intense song, a song meant to put you in your place, not to beguile you.
But the mirror image of improvisational interpretation can be a vagueness in execution, and the quartet was overmatched in the enigmatic Sixth Quartet. Written at the end of Bartok’s life, when his world was crumbling and health failing, it harks back to simpler tonal schemes as it struggles mightily to make its utterance. Wave after wave of gesture comes forward only to expend itself and retreat; the grim Mesto subject that precedes the first three movements takes over the fourth only to entangle itself with itself, and stagger to a weakened end. The joy, freedom and jolly violence that the Chiaras could draw on in the Fourth is simply not available in the Sixth; apart from the first movement, the predominant materials are sarcasm, parody and despair. The performance was technically proficient, but there are layers still to be excavated here, and a deeper sense of structure is needed to articulate this difficult piece clearly. I have no doubt that with time the Chiaras will find a way to communicate all these emotions with the gravity and architecture necessary. They played beautifully and attentively, alert to one another, and the first movement, whose mood was lighter, had touches of Brahms about it. The effects of memorization may have had nothing to do with this—the Second Quartet, a transitional piece between the post-Romanticism of the first and the folk-driven Third, Fourth, and Fifth, had a similar issue, and it was played from parts. The first two movements were a bit sober, but well-shaped and made a convincing argument. The last movement is a puzzle, formally confusing and emotionally conflicted, and while it received the same attention to detail as the first movements, the puzzle remained unsolved.
The Chiara’s Bartok cycle is ultimately a work in progress, the initial stages of what promises to be an interesting encounter. It seems reasonable to speculate that the effort of memorizing the quartets has given them some additional freedom at times, but that much work remains to be done once they have fully absorbed the pieces. It was too bad that on the same night the Takacs Quartet was covering exactly the same ground. Having been able to compare the two ensembles performances of the first three quartets, it would have been fruitful to continue that comparison, to hear the established Takacs with the experience of the Chiaras still in memory. We’ll have to wait until May, to hear the Borromeos take on all six at once, to contrast recent performances.