The Chilingirian Quartet Start to Commemorate the UK’s First Bartók Quartet Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bartók, Beethoven: Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian & Ronald Birks [violin], Susie Méráros [viola], Stephen Orton [cello]), Kings Place, London, 8.11.2015. (CS)

Mozart – String Quartet in D K.575 (‘Prussian’ No.1)

Bartók – String Quartet No.1 Sz.40

Beethoven – String Quartet in A Op.18 No.5

It would be fascinating to know how audiences responded to the six quartets of Béla Bartók when the complete cycle was first presented in London in 1949, four years after the composer’s death.  Certainly many of his contemporaries had difficulty understanding his music.  The first edition of The Musical Quarterly, in 1915, advised, ‘If the reader were so rash as to purchase any of Béla Bartók’s compositions, he would find that they each and all consist of unmeaning bunches of notes, apparently representing the composer promenading the keyboard in his boots.  Some can be played better with the elbows, others with the flat of the hand.  None require fingers to perform nor ears to listen to’.

During the Cold War years, Bartók was to some extent a ‘victim’ of the ideological battle between East and West, his modernist aesthetic and innovations praised by many in the West but lambasted as decadent cosmopolitanism in the East.  Conversely, the incorporation of the results of his ethnomusicological fieldwork into his compositions was condemned as reactionary in the West, while those in the Eastern Block praised his use of rural folk elements as they accorded with the Hungarian government’s evolving musical policy and wish to create a quintessentially ‘Hungarian’ national style.  The political turmoil of the early post-war years ensured that the musical debates had political significance.  Negative critiques such as René Leibowitz’s notorious 1947 article, ‘Béla Bartók, or the Possibility of Compromise in Contemporary Music’, were countered by the positive accolades of critics such as Bernard Gavoty, who declared Bartók to be the ‘man of the hour, the fashionable composer’, and Claude Rostand who gushed, ‘the music of Bartók ennobles all of music’.

This concert by the Chilingirian Quartet was the first of six in an historic series which commemorates the 70th anniversary of Bartók’s death by reconstructing the first complete cycle of Bartók’s quartets in the UK, which was mounted in 1949-50 by the London Chamber Music Society’s previous incarnation, the South Place Sunday Concerts.  The concerts (originally performed by the Hurwitz, Aeolian, Blech, Amadeus and Martin quartets), each presented one of Bartók’s quartets paired with one of Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets, and these ‘pioneering’ works were preceded by one of Mozart’s mature quartets.  This programme performed by the Chilingirian was first given by the Hurwitz Quartet in October 1949.

The three movements of Bartók’s First Quartet (1907-09) progressively acquired more vigour and decisiveness, suggesting the burgeoning of the composer’s distinctive and increasingly confident musical voice.  The Chilingirian’s tone in the opening Lento was warm – though I’d have liked a fuller sound – and well-blended, as the voices entered in descending order with gentle statements of Bartók’s lyrical theme.  Motivic elements such as the melody’s prominent falling sixth were expressively shaped throughout the movement’s imitative polyphony, and the quartet’s attention to the details of the score was impressive and convincing.  At times, the texture assumed an ‘impressionistic’ quality, as when Susie Méráros passionately and freely articulated the viola’s semitonal descent above the cello’s droning open-string fifths, the viola being subsequently joined by the second violin, as leader Levon Chilingirian’s soaring melody climbed above, assuaging the agitation and guiding the music towards tranquillity.  Such varied textures were consistently well-assimilated, though there were some slips in intonation.  The overall effect was of a melodiousness wrestling within itself.

In the second movement, Allegretto, which follows on without a break, the quasi-Beethovenian free counterpoint was energetic yet also euphonious, the contours and rhythms of the motifs always well-defined, and the intonation more focused and secure.  Bartók’s harmonies become ever more opaque here: the increasing use of the whole tone scale diverts the music from ‘stable’ ground, and the composer employs ostinato figures to ‘anchor’ the music in moments of harmonic instability.  I’d have liked the Chilingirian to have made more of the harmonic tensions and confusions, engaging with the modulatory arguments more vigorously and overtly, and employing a greater variety of bow pressure and vibrato.  At times I missed a sense of ‘struggle’, though I admired the sweetness of tone at the final cadence; Stephen Orton’s closing turn gesture was a tender murmur.  The folk spirit of the music came to the fore in the Allegro vivace, initiated by the free recitatives of firstly the cello and then the first violin in the Introduzione, where the chordal responses were richly assertive.  Amid the endlessly varying textures and meters, the viola’s quiet, dancing theme above pizzicato cello chords stood out for its grace and engaging rhythmic character; as the violins entered in quasi-fugal imitation the mood changed from playful to more agitated, accelerating then withdrawing as the mood and milieu fluctuated constantly, and the tessitura expanded.  Again, the Chilingirian seemed a little distanced from the music’s almost violent energy and rhythmic battles; there was certainly a fluency about the performance, but it lacked a sense of driving compulsion.

Mozart’s String Quartet in D K.575, the first of the composer’s so-called ‘Prussian’ quartets of 1789 which were written for King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, opened in a similarly undemonstrative fashion, the melody unfolding easily, and the quick triplet motif and undulating quavers transferring with relaxed ease among the voices.  The repeat of the exposition was more assertive, but the counterpoint of the short development lacked lightness of touch.  A wider vibrato gave warmth to the opening theme of the Andante, and a persuasive tempo was adopted creating expressive forward momentum.  There was an appealing clarity during the central section, with its sparser textures and there was a strong sense of resolution as the exploring lines came together in the final bars.

The Menuetto: Allegretto effectively balanced grace and robustness.  Levon Chilingirian demonstrated impressive bow control in the running staccato passages, and was not afraid to diminish into almost-silence.  The ensemble was good: the turn-figures neat, the unison passages well-tuned.  Orton displayed an appealing tone in the Trio, creating lovely lyrical lines and well-shaped phrases.  The concluding Allegretto was vigorous but never overstated, busy but controlled; the Quartet achieved a refined concertante style.

I felt that the Chilingirian were at their best in the final work of the programme, Beethoven’s Op.18 No.5 in A – a work which, fittingly, was modelled on Mozart’s quartet of the same key.  The opening of the Allegro was light and airy, the first violin’s staccato rising triplets propelled by bright accents and a fluid bass line, creating both dynamism and a spirit of optimism.  The development section started in forthright fashion before slipping into a fluid, conversational idiom.  The melody of the Menuetto may be charmingly simple, but here it was imbued by the two violins with a subtle rhetoric which suggested a more nuanced argument was being presented than the unsophisticated theme might at first imply.  The lower register and third-beat accents of the Trio introduced shadows but the textures remained lucid.

The Andante Cantabile variations were impressively structured, the elegance of the theme giving way to a ‘military’ sprightliness in the first variation, which was itself superseded by the elfin delicacy of the first violin’s rapid triplet semiquavers in the second.  Variation 3 allowed the viola and cello to engage in a rich duet beneath the oscillations of the violins; the following episode was mysteriously withdrawn in character, and so the bright violin trill, rapidly running inner lines and volatile leaping cello motif which begin Variation 5 came as an explosive outburst.  After such vigour, the movement’s reticent close was wonderfully soothing.  The Chilingirian once again enjoyed the contrapuntal freedom and invention of the final Allegro, but successfully reined in the exuberance and energy, closing with elegance and self-composure.  The new variety of texture and complexity of dialogue which Beethoven introduced in these Op.18 quartets was skilfully communicated by the Chilingirian Quartet.

Claire Seymour

The second concert in this historic series takes place on 7 February 2016, when the Chilingirian Quartet will perform Mozart’s String Quartet in A K.464, Bartók’s String Quartet No.2 Sz.67 and Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Op.18 No.2, a programme originally given by the Aeolian Quartet in November 1949.

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