The Chilingirian Quartet’s Bartók Series Continues

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bartók and Beethoven: Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian & Ronald Birks [violin], Susie Mészáros [viola], Stephen Orton [cello]) Kings Place, London, 24.4.2016 (CS)

Mozart: String Quartet in C K.465
Bartók: String Quartet No.3 Sz.85
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Op.18 No.1

The Chilingirian Quartet returned to Kings Place for the third concert in an historic series of six with which the Quartet are commemorating the 70th anniversary of Bartók’s death.  The programme performed was originally presented by the Blech Quartet in January 1950 as part of the first complete cycle of Bartók’s quartets in the UK.

Bartók’s String Quartet No.3 (1927) may, at just over 15 minutes, be the ‘shortest’ of the composer’s six quartets but its immense single-movement form, which fuses some of the elements of sonata form, presents a not inconsiderable challenge for the four instrumentalists.  Notwithstanding the sheer technical demands, the players must master and integrate the constantly developing small motifs and assimilate folk-derived material with exploratory canonic and fugal devices.

The Chilingirian Quartet made light work of Bartók’s revolutionary experiments, seemingly unfazed by the frequent changes of meter and incessant variation, and relishing the rough colours and grating dissonances.  The Third Quartet is not one that I know especially well and on this occasion I decided to break one of my own ‘rules’ and to follow the score during the performance (though the excitement generated by the Chilingirian’s playing repeatedly drew me from the notes on the page!)  I can only say that Bartók’s astonishing temporal complexity was matched, if not outdone, by the Quartet’s total command of the complex polyrhythms.

There was a real sense of freedom as the linear voices explored bravely and confidently; the compelling forward motion did not once lessen, and there was a strong sense of melodic direction with the folk ‘germs’ richly projected, and the imitative entries – often in close succession – tight and crisp.  As the stretta entries bunched ever closer, the driving intensity was fiery.  The Chilingirian undoubtedly confirmed Theodor Adorno’s observation, made in 1929, that ‘What is decisive is the formative power of the work; the iron concentration, the wholly original tectonics.’

Bartók’s sinewy quartet was preceded by a robust rendition of Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet.  The mysterious slow introduction was full-bodied and brisk: the cello’s repeated quavers acquired heaviness as the winding lines gradually piled up the dissonances, and there was little sense of mysterious meandering or enigmatic nuance.  Indeed, the Chilingirian seemed to have decided to deliberately give the lines strong direction and, rather than emphasising the strangeness of the eponymous discords, to gloss over them.

The ensuing Allegro delivered a powerful sense of contrapuntal energy – almost ‘operatic’ in tone – but a little less haste would have given greater elegance to the melodic lines, though cellist Stephen Orton did shape the cadences effectively.  To me, the movement felt rushed, and the Quartet pushed the tempo at the expense of ensemble for there was some untidiness.  Admittedly, it’s an inherent challenge for the middle voices to equal the top and bottom for penetration, but I felt that Levon Chilingirian’s assertive playing was not always matched by second violinist Ronald Birks when the latter had prominent thematic material.

Though again quite briskly paced, the lyrical opening theme of the Andante cantabile was sweet-toned and Levon Chilingirian produced a very focused sound, beneath which Birks and viola player Susie Mészáros effectively drew attention to the winding chromatic motifs of the inner voices.  The Menuetto: Allegro was surprisingly restrained, with little made of the varied textural contrasts; some of the unison statements were untidy.  The Quartet saved the drama for the minor-key Trio where contrasts of dynamic were vigorous and exciting.

The final Allegro molto was busy and energetic: though the opening theme shone like a clear ray of bright sunshine after the shadows of the Trio – and of the ongoing chromatic interjections of all three of the preceding movements – there was nothing ‘simple’ about the complex interchanges which involved all four four players in ceaseless argument and activity.  Levon Chilingirian’s racing semiquavers were swift, light and deft, and the first violin’s rhetorical exchanges with the other voices were well-balanced.  This was a persuasive conclusion, though I was disappointed overall that the Chilingirian did not seem inclined to delve into the quartet’s elements of ‘newness’ – of harmony, texture and form – in order to prompt the listeners in the Hall to a more probing engagement with the music’s arguments.

It is common for commentators to note that Bartók’s six string quartets are the most significant contribution to the repertoire since Beethoven.  Certainly for both composers the string quartet was a life-long preoccupation, almost a fixation, and each concert of the 1949-50 London series coupled one of Bartók’s six quartets with a quartet from another ground-breaking series: Beethoven’s Op.18 set, the composer’s first cycle of six quartets, published in 1800.

To conclude the recital, the Chilingirian gave a daring performance of the first of the six, in F Major, setting off at yet another no-nonsense tempo in the Allegro con brio and performing with plenty of muscularity and mobility.  But if there was much dramatic punch, especially in the intensely imitative development section of the first movement, there was also some inconsistency – lapses of intonation and unanimity – and, throughout the quartet, the Chilingirian’s sound lacked a certain warmth and suavity.  I didn’t get a sense that every phrase had been well-considered and individually shaped – something that, with so many terrific young string quartets performing today, we have come to expect.

This was noticeable too in the Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, a movement of profound pathos and elegiac feeling which is said to represent the composer’s response to the tomb scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  The Chilingirian played with intensity, even in the quieter sections – Beethoven pared down the dynamics when he revised his first version – but the juxtaposition of silences and stabbing outbursts at the climax did not quite surprise and disturb in the way it should.

The grace of the Scherzo – the long lines of which established an unstoppable upwards gravitation –gave way to gentle humour in the Trio, as Levon Chilingirian’s slippery scurrying alternated with bucolic octave leaps from the other voices.  There was some dazzling contrapuntal conversation in the final Allegro, though again I felt that the tempo was overly precipitous.  One risks losing some of Beethoven’s rich detail if the movement becomes a race to the finish.

The Chilingirian Quartet return to King’s Place in October for the fourth concert in the series (Mozart-Bartok-Beethoven), and I very much look forward to hearing them perform Bartók’s Fourth Quartet.  The players can without doubt get their fingers round the notes, but I hope for a more blended sound with a strong defining colour or characteristic, greater cleanness of detail, and a more distinct sense of a guiding purpose in the accompanying works: Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor K.421 and Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat Op.18 No.6.

Claire Seymour

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