MASTERWORK: The Aeolus Quartet Performs Bartók’s 6th String Quartet Thursday, April 16, 2015 Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center
Quartets by Haydn or Mozart are straightforward affairs.These works can be difficult to play and interpret, but at least we know both the composers and the musical tradition that they represent. Move even a bit east of Vienna, though, and the familiar rhythms of the West become choppy and asymmetrical, strange Magyar harmonies matched with even stranger accents and beats. The Aeolus Quartet (currently in residence at Juilliard) discussed their own struggles with the Hungarian tradition in Bartók’s melancholy Quartet No. 6 this past Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Public Library for the Performing Arts. Inspired by a performance in Cleveland that matched Bartók chamber works with songs by a Hungarian folk ensemble, the Aeolus Quartet emphasized the dissonant elements–quarter-tones, Bartók pizzicatti, and quasi chitarra plucking–that distinguish Bartók from his blue-blooded Viennese contemporaries. Unlike most chamber concerts that feature two or three complete works,this group performed only the one Bartók quartet preceded by a lengthy conversation about their preparation of the piece itself. This quartet, rich with historical and biographical significance, lends itself well to this type of presentation. Bartók’s Quartet was composed on the eve of war in 1939, as both Fascists and Communists tore Hungary apart. Forced into an American exile, Bartók never saw his ailing mother again. The darkness of the war overshadows the entire work. Each movement begins with the marking Mesto (melancholy), a theme first played by the moodiest of instruments, the viola. The Aeolus Quartet performed the difficult work with virtuosic precision. Just as the god Aeolus united the four corners of the ancient world into a single elemental wind, the Aeolus Quartet blended seamlessly and built on each other’s strengths throughout the piece. The pre-concert talk revealed the quartet’s greatest challenges: the sudden tempo changes, the maddening quarter-tone harmonies, and chromatically linked voice parts that sounded dissonant even when they were right. But the group handled these challenges with verve, and the result was a sort of expectant listening that brought the listener and the music together as one. With the exception of the fourth movement, the Bartók piece can’t really be called beautiful. But the work is darkly powerful if nothing else, and compares quite well with the other master of the 20th-century quartet, Dmitri Shostakovich. Bartók’s burlesque “March” that satirizes the goose-stepping fascists recalls Shostakovich’s own farcical “March” in his Symphony No. 5. The overall mood of Bartók’s quartet further recalls the late quartets of Shostakovich himself, who reserved his darkest, most private emotions for the intimacy of the chamber quartet. We know that Shostakovich attended a performance of this Quartet No. 6 in New York in 1949, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Shostakovich–also a composer on the musical periphery quite far from the West–was greatly influenced by the work of this unrelenting and melancholy Hungarian.