CAMBRIDGE — “Less a presentation than a conversation,” The New York Times wrote of a concert by the Chiara String Quartet in 2007.
One might think that every string quartet performance should be a conversation, the musicians now talking, now listening, now somehow managing to talk at the same time. More often, however, the players are conversing with their scores rather than with each other.
On Friday, Chiara, just finishing up six years as Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard University, endeavored to play the odd-numbered Bartók string quartets from memory. The music stands did come out for Quartet No. 3, but it hardly mattered, since the performers — violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver — still spent more time looking at one another than at their scores.
Playing Bartók from memory is not like playing Mozart or Beethoven. His six quartets, which span the years 1909 to 1939, bridge the 19th and 20th centuries, with their folk-dance elements and shifting time signatures and incessantly mutating themes and harmonies. The First Quartet was inspired by the composer's unrequited love for violinist Stefi Geyer; he described its opening movement to her as a “funeral dirge,” and its wandering sadness, which seems to anticipate the opening movement of Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony, infuses the remaining five, as the music makes its way through World War I and the rise of Nazi Germany, now laughing, now crying, always dancing.
Some performances of the cycle present Bartók as an abstract modernist; some look back at the 19th century and the music’s folk roots. Chiara is clearly interested in the latter approach. Before the group began the First Quartet, Beaver played a tape Bartók had made of an old man singing the Hungarian folk song “Röpülj, páva, röpülj” (“Fly, Peacock, Fly”), and then the players showed how Bartók incorporated the tune into the last movement of the quartet.
But Chiara also managed to have it both ways. The performances had shape and grace and ample room to breathe, but they never lacked mystery or intensity. Right from the start you could see, and hear, Fischer and Yoon listening to each other, and then they made way for Beaver when he entered. The two “night music” movements of the Fifth Quartet were particularly beautiful, with their drone of a ghostly Ivesian hymn and tremolos that suggested tawny owls calling to one another. The moto perpetuo of the Fifth’s finale gives way, toward the end, to a mock-gavotte; it can slip right by, but Chiara made sure it didn’t, dancing through it as the group had danced through the entire evening.