The Parker String Quartet (Daniel Chong and Ken Hamao, violins; Jessica Bodner, viola, and Kee-Hyun Kim, cello), streamed two intense, interrelated works yesterday: String Quartet No. 3 by Bartók and Brahms’s Quartet Opus 51, No. 1. The intellects within the Parker shine through in their programming, this time exploring through deep emotion an example of how one generation of composers learns from another.
The decision to offer Bartók’s 1927 composition first demonstrates the results of retrospection, before revealing its sources—the Brahms work, as well as Stravinsky and Berg. One of the six string quartets Bartók left to the world, it is concise—generally played as a 15-minute continuum through its four sections, which a flow from Moderato, Allegro, a Moderato partial recapitulation of the first part, and an Allegro Molto Coda that recalls the second section.
The first violin enters hauntingly after the other three members begin with quiet mournful longing and regret. Indeed, first violinist Chong shone throughout. Yet, the harmonically varied but stark first section was harder to connect with as it arrived on screen played socially distanced and masked. We very much missed the Parkers’ highly evocative facial expressions. The second Allegro section with its incantatory sections and merrier mood, includes innovative glissandos, and an uplifting melody from the cello towards the end soothed. The recapitulatory third section reset a sober mood, briefly, before soaring into the final Allegro molto Coda.
Folk music elements surfaced throughout, though divorced from full statement of any given tune. And the sul ponticello and col legno bowing, at intervals, lent intrigue, if complicating the listening.
The Parkers play Bartók with forethought and verve, and I hope we get to hear them play the other five of his quartets over time.
Next, the Opus 51, No. 1 string quartet filled the air with pressured passion in a thematic cohesiveness, rich with melodies and typical Brahmsian rhythms. The piece could be heard as presenting stages of grief. The Parker’s collaborative phrasing in the exquisitely mournful yet pressured Allegro of the first movement with its rising minor scale and precarious falling 7th seemed to foreshadow destruction and death. The Romanze poco adagio of the second movement was softer, yet filled with resignation—a mood of solitary sobbing in F minor that veers back to C minor. The group’s careful ensemble playing created a personal sound and portrait of loss in this second movement. The downward scale of the third movement, Allegro molto moderato e commodo, seems to signify tragic acceptance with some graceful, if bitter, resolution. The last Allegro movement is more expansive, through minor key and varied directions and connotes moving on and through great loss.
The Brahms example makes clear some of what Bartók aimed to include in his third quartet. So much so that it could have been worthwhile to bracket the Brahms by playing the Bartók again. Streaming, though, allows us to re-listen to aspects of the concert that generally waft into the air and disappear. What the in-person audience loses in the continual evanescence of sound, the online listener gains in the chance to replay, revisit, deconstruct, and obsess. The present pandemic demands reconfigurations that challenge the intimacy of string quartets—here, quartet members played masked in a shallow, distanced semicircle, all standing, save Kim, the cellist, who achieved comparable height through sitting on a podium.
Nonetheless, the compelling programming and fine performance provided worthy compensation. I recommend hearing the Parker Quartet in this new mode.
The well-mixed and (apparently) slightly juiced sound from the four (apparently) Schoeps mikes resulted in a detailed sound stage very suitable for viewing online. A master longshot of all four players, lasting an average of 15 seconds alternated with thematically appropriate closeups, two-shots and three-shots and angled four-shots lasting an average of 10 seconds. Cuts came on the beat.