As a teenager, Béla Bartók wrote three string quartets, and even gave two of them opus numbers in his second catalogue (he was profligate with opus catalogs, going through three of them before finally giving up around 1920). These quartets are never heard today. The last six of his nine, therefore, are the “complete Bartók quartets” that have inspired the awe of audiences and performers since the last of them came out in 1939. So much awe, in fact, that they have spawned generations of dissertations, entrails inspections and other academic gibberish—Milton Babbitt produced one within five years of Bartók’s death, and it’s been downhill from there. Maybe Bartók brought it on himself: the tenor of most of these quartets is High Seriousness and gnarly introspection, almost as if he would get up some days and muse “I’m in a lousy mood, I think I’ll write a string quartet.”
That these works are, in fact, frequently wonderful and often sublime, therefore must come down to the people who play them, and for some reason the last few years have seen an explosion of performances of the “complete” œuvre; in 2014 three separate quartets, the Takács, Chiara and Borromeo, gave full cycles, over multiple programs. On Sunday, though, the latter went whole hog, offering all six in chronological order to a rapt Calderwood Hall audience. The marathon began at 1:30 and ended about 3¼ hours later. The pros and cons of such an undertaking need not detain us here, as our estimable colleague Fred Bouchard proposes [here] to consider them separately. The cumulative effect, however, can be succinctly stated:
The Borromeo (Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins; Mai Motobuchi, viola; and Yeesun Kim, cello), a world-beating treasure that adorns the Boston cultural scene, has made a special study of these pieces, having played them many times—including an all-at-one-gulp venture at least as long ago as 2009 (our records at BMInt don’t go farther back than that). Although it is our custom to provide some historical and technical background (the program notes furnished by the ISGM, by the way, were quite good and succinct), there has been so much written about the Bartók set that it seems not only easier, but kinder, to direct readers to one of the more intelligible synopses, here.
Although we’ve tipped our hand on what we thought of the performance overall, we wouldn’t be earning our pay without dilating a bit on the specifics. Since the Borromeo appears to want to make this set its signature repertoire (not a bad thing at all, pitting them against some of the most formidable competition in quartetdom), it is important to note that their precision is fully matched by their sympathetic oneness with the expressive idioms Bartók employed, ranging from the anguished post-Romanticism of the first quartet, through the jagged orneriness of the third and fourth, to the relaxed assuredness of the fifth and sixth. We did wonder sometimes about the appropriateness of Kitchen’s jovial body English in places where the music didn’t really call for it (one of the more endearing gags by Ernie Kovacs was to play Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta or the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion to accompany scenes on his show—and can you think of another comedian who would ever do something like that?—and then credit the music at the end to “Bubbles Bartók”); but probably this owes more to a musician’s joy at getting something exactly right than to any commentary on the music itself. The counterpoint, which pervades and is a fundamental structural tool of these quartets, was conveyed with perfect clarity without losing any of its adhesive qualities. Another characteristic of the Borromeo’s playing that grabbed us was the use of dynamic and rhythmic control to point up structure, as in the first movement of the second quartet, in which the base rhythmic motif emerged gradually from the sonic texture.
As Bartók’s style evolved, his dedication to coloristic effects increased (up to a point), and starting in low gear in the second and accelerating through the next three, he exploited (and the Borromeo perfectly executed) the full range of glisses, harmonics, col legno, jeté, sul ponticello, muted, and similar effects, though it seems interesting that there were very few instances of the “Bartók pizz” that gained such fame. Like our colleague David Patterson, we’re particularly partial to the fourth quartet, in which all of the features one associates with Bartók seem to have coalesced, and the Borromeo performance was a tour de force of their best dynamic, rhythmic and coloristic execution, culminating in the barnyard roughness and rustic fireworks of the finale.
There are not a lot of occasions in this cycle for spectacular solo displays, so where they occur the Borromeo’s members made the most of them: our notes singled out Kim’s richly sonorous song in double stops in the second movement of the fifth quartet, and Motobuchi’s sorrowful opening in the sixth (that quartet, the least flashy but the most deeply felt one of the set, was Bartók’s farewell to Europe on the brink of war, with each movement beginning with the same sad melody, scored up from solo to quartet).
It’s a pity that the crowd at the Calderwood thinned out, especially after the second intermission; this marathon rewarded every minute as all the many minutes raced by.