The first American performance of Bartok’s six string quartets as a cycle took place in 1948, less than three years after the composer’s death. Serge Koussevitzky, who had commissioned Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra shortly before the composer’s death, invited the young Juilliard String Quartet to play the quartets at Tanglewood on successive Saturdays in July.
History seems to have left scant clues as to the reception of that momentous event. But when the Juilliard repeated the cycle in New York the following year, Virgil Thomson famously wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that the quartets were “the cream of Bartok’s repertory, the essence of his deepest thought and feeling. . . . They are also, in a century that has produced richly in that medium, a handful of chamber music nuggets that are pure gold by any standard.”
The subsequent 65 years have borne out Thomson’s prophetic judgment. Today the Bartok quartets are regarded as epoch-making works with which performers and listeners are required to grapple in order to comprehend their profound effect on what followed. Performances of the cycle, once sporadic, have become almost commonplace.
Even so, Bostonians will have a singular opportunity for immersion in the quartets over the next two months. On Friday, the Chiara String Quartet gives the first in a two-concert cycle; the Takács Quartet follows suit on March 20. Concertgoers’ cups will runneth over on April 11, when both groups will play the second, fourth, and sixth quartets at roughly the same time. Finally, the Borromeo String Quartet will play all six in a single evening at New England Conservatory on May 14.
“What I find persists, in all six quartets, is the precision of the way he sets individual pitches,” said Nicholas Kitchen, the Borromeo’s first violinist, in a phone interview. “No matter how many times we play them, whether it’s the fast music or the slow music, Bartok’s clarity of vision, of the meaning of those 12 notes of the scale, is just so vivid.”
“It is an incredible journey,” agreed Rebecca Fischer, first violinist with the Chiara, in a phone interview. She points out, though, that even today, some presenters get cold feet about certain Bartok quartets, thinking that their dissonant language is still anathema to many listeners. But “I think it’s important for people to realize when they’re coming to listen to a Bartok cycle that they’re going to hear everything.”
The Chiara makes a lot of school visits, and when they do, “we almost always play Bartok, because it’s the music that kids of so many different ages respond to, so immediately. The folk element, the dance rhythms, the singable quality — it all gets at your human core.”
To be sure, there are textures and sounds in the quartets — especially the Third and Fourth – that listeners still find bracing. But Fischer maintains that there’s a deep strand of lyricism in Bartok’s music that stretches all the way from the first two, in which Bartok was establishing his voice, through the radically experimental third and fourth, to the final pair, where he discovered a new expansiveness in his writing.
“I see the lyricism of the First Quartet extended all the way through the quartets, through the Sixth,” she said. “And that’s an important part of our interpretation of the cycle.”
Kitchen pointed out that the first groups to play the Bartok, like the Juilliard, leaned heavily on their more abstract, modernist character. “It’s like the clearing of the land – there’s a lot of blasting that has to get done before you can even get started,” he said. “But I agree that what’s behind the imaginative thrust is a lyrical expression, and I think as a group gets more comfortable, they’re able to really enjoy that.”
The Sixth Quartet occupies a world of its own. It was written in 1939, against the backdrop of the death of Bartok’s mother and the darkening of Europe as it plunged toward war. Bartok left his beloved Hungary the next year, and it is hard not to hear the piece as a kind of spiritual farewell.
Kitchen and the Borromeos have studied the original manuscript of the Sixth – which they will discuss earlier in the day of their concert – which shows that Bartok originally intended to end it with a rousing, brilliant finale. “But then, as he’s writing this passage, he just comes to a dead stop. He doesn’t write a single other note of it. From what he was seeing at that moment in 1939, he just turned away from this celebratory ending. It wasn’t the right thing to do.” The composer instead wrote the drained, melancholy music that now ends the quartet, and the cycle.
The Chiara will do something extraordinary at their concerts: They’ll perform all six quartets from memory. The process requires all four members to know not only their own parts but everyone else’s. For a quartet to do anything from memory is unusual. (The group will soon release a recording of the Brahms quartets recorded in this way.) With music as complex as the Bartok, it seems a bit mad.
But, Fischer said, “what I think is wonderful is that learning these pieces from memory has been so much easier, in a sense. For some of the trickier passages, it’s hard to sit and look at so many measure of rest and however many beats and then coming in. It’s like stepping onto a moving train. But if I’ve memorized exactly everybody’s part, I’m not counting, I’m singing somebody else’s part to myself, and then I just come in naturally where I know I’m supposed to come in. That’s made a lot of our tricky ensemble moments easier, because we know more.”
For Kitchen, the challenge is making the entire passage in a single evening. They’ve done it a number of times, “so it’s a familiar sensation. But that’s like someone who says they’ve climbed Mount Everest a number of times,” he joked.
“Especially in a single concert, you just feel an organic transformation that your ear is sort of in contact with for that entire three hours, which is pretty remarkable. And what happens when you do that is that the journey you’ve taken has really covered more ground than you thought you could. You know, you’ve been on a journey that you had a lot of expectations for, but it far exceeded all of them.”David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@ gmail.com.