Fine performances of Bartok and Haydn from Tokyo String Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartok, Haydn: Tokyo String Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 24.11.12 (GD)

Bartok String Quartet No. 4
Haydn String Quartet in G minor Op.74 No 3 ‘Rider’
Bartok String Quartet No. 6

Bartok’s Fourth Quartet is quite different from his three preceding quartets. Although folk themes and rhythms are evident, as they are in all six quartets, Bartok here is focusing on thematic unity. All five movements have a mirror symmetry (ABCBA). The finale brings together many motivic connections with the first movement, actually concluding with the same music, after oscillating in and between many rhythmic, tonal correspondences. The second and fourth movements are both scherzos, also related in terms of motif and textural shading. The first of these scherzos is marked ‘Prestissimo, con sordino’ denoting a muted soundscape. I like the description by tonight’s programme note writer’ of … ‘a cloud of insects hovering on muted strings, swooping up on bowed and pizzicato glissandos and fluttering down on minutely detailed ‘sul pontillico’ figuration’… Had such exotic and varied sounds ever before been heard in a string quartet? Equally innovative is the ‘Allegretto pizzicato’ second scherzo, where the string is pulled so hard that it snaps against the fingerboard to produce a startling percussive effect. One could add here the distinct slow movement, relatively unrelated, with its modulations on a row of fifths; the relationships, contrasts between speed and timing; Bartok’s use of diatonic scales and chromatic harmonies; the amazingly economic use of inverted canonic themes. And many more unique and trenchant innovations.

The Tokyo Quartet delivered all these subtle complexites with astonishing insights. Not just insights as to how this or that movement/section should be articulated, but consolidating this musical diversity within a convincing totality. Nothing was underlined, but every nuance made its arresting effect. In this sense I felt that these players had more in common with older ‘classic’ string quartet styles in this music than with many of the later/contemporary renditions, where dazzling virtuosic displays are more pronounced than attention to the work’s overall unity. And this is especially relevant when one considers that the Tokyo Quartet itself has been performing and recording for 42 years. I am here thinking particularly of the Vegh or Hungarian Quartets, and like them tonight’s performance brought out the wonderful lyricism and contrasting melodic registers contained in this music. One could say, using a very overused and inaccurate term, that the Tokyo Quartet gave us not just virtuosity but also the ‘humanity’ these unique works speak of.

Haydn’s Op 71 and 74 quartets constitute a set (three quartets to each) of six quartets. They are sometimes referred to as the ‘Apponyi’ Quartets‘. Apponyi was a Hungarian Count who commissioned the works, and to whom Haydn dedicated them in the first edition of 1795. But, as tonights programme note writer tells us, they were composed more to suite the musical requirements of London impresario Johan Peter Salomon; it was in Salomon’s Hanover Square concert rooms in London that the quartets were first performed. The Quartet in G minor Op.74 No.3 is the only work of the set to have earned the nickname Reiterquartett (of course, not given by Haydn himself) with reference to the ‘riding’ rhythm of finale. It is also the only one of the set in a minor mode. The Haydn quartet made a fitting contrast to both the Bartok quartets – both models of compositional economy, and both deploying various folk elements. Tonight the short sharp appogiaturas of the opening unison passage in the minor mode (direct precursors of the dotted rhythm) made their arresting effect. Similarly the quick 3/4 time of the opening movement, with its alternating crotchet measures/oscillations between minor and major, and true Austrian ‘Landler’ ‘yodeling’ slurs, sounded all the more convincing by adhering strictly to Haydn’s score with very little variation of tempo. The wonderfully melodic and serene E major, alla breve ‘Largo assai’ second movement, was a joy to hear, as was the ‘Allegretto’ minuet, with its trio in the minor. The finale, beginning in G minor, and ending in G major, the famous ‘rider’ movement, had just the right ‘Sturm und Drang’ rhythmic intensiy and tonal contrast. Surely Schubert was influenced by this movement? I am, of course, thinking particularly of the the finale of his D minor Quartet D 810, the ‘Death and the Maiden’. I look forward to hearing more Haydn from the Tokyo Quartet, especially the wonderful Op. 76 set, which they recorded many years ago.

As one recent commentator put it, Bartok’s Sixth Quartet gives ‘an inescapable impression of sad, bitter commentary on the mood of the time’. Composed in August 1939 amid the outbreak of war, and rise of Fascism in Hungary. Bartok as an avid anti-Fascist unsurprisingly felt threatened. After the death of his mother, and a period of mourning, he left Hungary for New York in October 1940. But apart from the feeling of loss, sadness, in each of the traditional four movements marked ‘mesto’ (sad), Bartok typically introduces a note of irony or parody. Each movement begins with a different treatment of the same music, as if each movement was an answer to the same question, initiated by the opening viola melody marked ‘mesto’. The theme introduces not only the first movement, a 6/8 sonata-form Vivace reminscent of the opening of the Second Quartet, but also, in increasingly developed form with sudden shifts into C minor, the next two. Tonight it was as if the Tokyo Quartet were taking us on a poignant quartet voyage, relishing the allusions to gypsy bands, the parodies of eighteenth century march rhythms in the second movement, a savage Burletta in the third movement, and a slow finale marked again ‘mesto’ which recalls the question/answer themes of the previous movements but offers no final answer or closure, only a very resonant silence. As one commentator put it, ‘the distant reminiscenses to earlier themes, especially the contrasting Vivace, now sound poignantly like memories of a past Hungary, debased by recent events, and soon to be lost to Bartok for ever’.

Usually a closing work lasting just under 30 minutes would seem short measure in concert terms. But with this last Bartok Quartet, played so idiomatically, mere clock time ceased to be a distraction. Also, a work of such incredible economy, and compressed intensity and complexity, can easily stand in for a work lasting at least twice its actual duration.

To round off the evening the Tokyo Quartet gave as a marvellously succinct encore in the shape of the brilliantly mercurial finale Presto scherzando from Haydn’s Op. 20 Quartet, No.4 in D major.

Geoff Diggines