United Kingdom Mozart, Bartók and Beethoven: Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian & Ronald Birks [violin], Susie Mészáros [viola], Stephen Orton [cello]) Kings Place, London, 7.2.2016. (CS)
Mozart: String Quartet in A K.464
Bartók: String Quartet No.2 Sz.67
Beethoven: String Quartet in G Op.18 No.2
This was the second concert in the Chilingirian Quartet’s Mozart-Bartók-Beethoven series, which sets out to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Bartók’s death by reconstructing the first complete cycle of Bartók’s six string quartets in the United Kingdom, the original series having been formed part of the 1949/50 season presented by the London Chamber Music Society’s precursor organisation, the South Place Sunday Concerts.
On this occasion, which reproduced the Aeolian Quartet’s programme of November 1949, I felt that it took a time for the Chilingirian to settle into an assured manner and unified expressive mode. Though such matters are perhaps irrelevant in terms of the music-making itself, there was much nose-blowing, music-shuffling and general ‘busying’ before both of the items in the first half, which would have been less noticeable, if some players had not seemed more ‘ready to go’ than others.
Whatever, the Chilingirian made heavy weather of Mozart’s String Quartet in A K.464, the fifth of the so-called ‘Haydn Quartets’, written in the winter of 1785, which combines sophisticated contrapuntal exchanges with gallant eloquence. The initial Allegro began in patrician style – full-toned and refined – but became increasingly soupy in the development section. The ensemble rocked at times, and the movement felt laboured; the players themselves looked rather dour. The Menuetto featured some strong voiced contrapuntal entries, but while this conveyed structural rigour, it also created a sturdiness which was not entirely dispelled by melodic directness and dramatic dynamic contrasts of the Trio.
Though the Andante began with a tender sotto voce first violin melody, the subsequent variations of the theme did not acquire sufficient individual definition; the way that Mozart’s successive variations give each instrument its own distinct voice is remarkable, but even the cello’s ‘drum variation’ – from which the Quartet draws its ‘name’ – while neatly articulated, did not make a conspicuous impact, and there was insufficient tension between this percussive bass line and the more sinuous, gentle movements of the upper parts. Only in the final Allegro did the Chilingirian admit some air and light into the texture: there was freshness in the ever more ingenious motivic developments, but I still longed for more vividness, more technical precision – and, principally, a sense of more delight in the playful exchanges.
I wrote in November last year that, while I admired the sweetness of the Chilingirian’s tone in Bartók’s First Quartet, I regretted the absence of a sustained sense of ‘struggle’. ‘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.’ But that was not the case with their rendition of the Second Quartet which was a coherent exploration of embittered determination.
The first movement, Moderato, benefited greatly from the contribution of cellist Stephen Orton, who had a strong sense of the music’s structure and who provided an urgent underpinning which drove forward – and which could, I felt, have been even more intense. The precision of the Quartet’s playing was impressive, and the technical assurance ensured that the coherence of the movement – as the players’ individual lines seem to follow independent trains of thought – was sustained; they seemed to relish their private musings, moving from collective to individual musical reflection with naturalness and confidence. The tentative close of this movement was touching after such toils.
The sequence of folk dances which form the Allegro molto capriccioso was delivered with real verve and spirit. The players seemed to relish the diverse colours, rapidly interchanged; the pizzicatos – hectically thrown into the bowed passages – provided vibrant impetus (but could the last patina of gentility have been erased by even more aggression?); and, even the more homophonic passages, at their quietest, drove forward. The close was an iridescent haze.
In the final Lento, the Chilingirian’s appreciation of the way that this Quartet – composed during World War I amid terrible deprivation in Hungary, which forced Bartók to curtail his ethnographical fieldwork – follows an evolving path to a tragic conclusion was strongly communicated. Zoltán Kodály described it thus: ‘What emerges from the successive movements is not a series of different moods, but the continual evolution of a single, coherent, spiritual process. The impression conveyed by the work as a whole, though it is from the musical point of view formally perfect, is that of a spontaneous experience.’ Here the continuity of phrasing, and well-tuned double-stopped effects, prevented the fragmentary reflections from ‘falling apart’. There was a strong sense of resignation, but no ‘closure’. Just wisps of sound at the final reckoning.
It was in the final work of the programme, Beethoven’s Op.18 No.2 in G major, though, that the Chilingirian were at their best. There was a fluent naturalness about the exchange of ideas in the Allegro, particularly in the development section; and, in the recapitulation’s quasi-reluctant restatement of the opening material, a disinclined monotone ultimately burgeoned into new arguments and ideas. The Chilingirian convinced us that they were communicating from within the formal arguments rather than interpreting them from outside. And Levon Chilingirian’s relaxed facility – as in the rising octave passages – added to the ease and fluency. The rich elaborations of the Adagio cantabile were beguilingly ornamented, while the wild askew-ness of the Scherzo finally brought forth a smile to alleviate the players’ seriousness. Here, there was freedom and a sense of release. And, the Chilingirian foregrounded the remaining surprises of the Allegro molto, quasi presto with persuasive gusto.
I was left with the impression that, if there is to be more than a documentary purpose in reprising these concerts of yesteryear, it must be to illuminate new musical relationships between the programmed works that would, perhaps, have not been evident to audiences in the 1940s and 1950s. I’m not yet convinced that, despite their accomplished performance of individual works, the Chilingirian Quartet has begun to do so. But, it’s early days.
The Chilingirian Quartet performs Mozart’s String Quartet No.19 in C K.465, Bartók’s String Quartet No.3 (1927) and Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Op.18 No.1 on Sunday 24th April at Kings Place.