Stunning Bartók from the Chilingirian Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bartók, Beethoven: Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian & Ronald Birks [violins], Susie Mészáros [viola], Stephen Orton [cello]), Kings Place, London, 9.10.2016. (CS)

Levon Chilingirian, Susie Mészáros, Ronald Birks and Stephen Orton

Mozart – String Quartet No.15 in D minor K.421
Bartók – String Quartet No.4 SZ.91
Beethoven – String Quartet in Bb Op.18 No.6

The Chilingirian Quartet’s historic Bartók series – which commemorates the 70th anniversary of Bartók’s death by recreating the first complete cycle of his string quartets in the United Kingdom – resumed on Sunday at Kings Place.

During the previous concerts in the series, although I have not always been totally convinced by the Chilingirian’s performance of the quartets by Mozart and Beethoven which have framed the Bartók core, I have found their technical mastery of the extended instrumental techniques deployed by the Hungarian composer, and the players’ appreciation of the way in which such techniques convey the spirit of the Hungarian composer’s folk-infused language and dynamism, as well as their committed communication of this spirit, to be always admirable, and at times gripping.  We’ve now reached the fourth of Bartók’s six quartets, which was written during the summer of 1928 in Budapest, and this performance of the Fourth Quartet represented a peak in this achievement.

As an undergraduate, I chose these six quartets as the set work for my final year of study, convinced that if I did not at that time make a dedicated effort to gain an understanding of their musical processes and vision (and that meant Saturday morning tutorials!), then I would not find the opportunity  to do so at a later date.  Looking at my study scores now, many years later, I find a flood of annotations referring to hexachordal cells, pitch sets, octatonic fragments, polymodality, cluster effects and axial roles; but these terms bear little relation to the actual experience of the visceral energy and instinctual revelations conjured by the Chilingirian in this stunning performance, as they illuminated the ways in which Bartók fuses dodecaphonic techniques and folk influences to form a language which operates on a distinct and ‘higher’ plane.

The five-movement work employs a symmetrical, arch-like structure and we began with an explosive Allegro which, despite the savage energy of the rhythmic sforzando accents, the Chilingirian still managed to infuse with lyricism of line.  The fluidity and forward movement were unbroken, after the pauses which characterise the introductory passage; the snaking chromaticism of the melodic line was redolent with quasi-Arabian mystery, and as the polyphonic events unfolded the dissolution of, and return to, the bar line was as invigorating as the textural inconsistencies and sonic contrasts.  Just when things seemed on the verge of disintegration under the force of the material’s creative diversity, a regathering, or unison gesture, or more regular rhythmic counterpoint expertly stayed the dissolution.

The semitonal surging, stabbing chords and pungent pizzicati of the Prestissimo, con sordini which follows were delivered with astonishing accuracy and agility; texture became a motif in its own right.  The Non troppo lento is the heart of the quartet, and its hazy ‘night music’ – vibrato-less sustained chords, concentrated gestures – formed a wonderful static background for the high, declamatory explorations of cellist Stephen Orton and leader Levon Chilingirian.  The Agitato section of this pivotal third movement saw second violinist Ronald Birks come to the fore with a strongly defined melody, before violist Susie Mészáros joined Birks in irregular counterpoint, the viola straining tensely but eloquently at the top of its range.  This movement was urgent, discomforting, enlivening and, when the harmonic tension relaxed momentarily, consoling.

The pizzicato cross-rhythms of the Allegretto pizzicato once again made timbre arguably the most significant element.  Ringing, brushed or twanging, the pizzicato motifs assumed a melodic role which was enhanced by the Chilingirian’s coordination of accentuation and clear differentiation of voices.  The final Allegro molto was a furious riot of scordatura-like effects, rowdy and brittle col segno, and a rhythmic complexity bordering on insanity!  But, paradoxically, there was some spaciousness amid the densely scored disturbances, and a hint of a Romantic return with reprises of some of the opening movement’s material.  The drama of the close was thrilling, leaving one incredulous at Bartók’s, and the Chilingirian’s, audacity.

The opening work of the concert, Mozart’s D minor Quartet K.421, was also surprisingly ‘modern’ in general mood.  There was tension and expectancy at the start of the Allegro.  A strong sense of drama and undercurrents of unrest characterised the development section especially, though the recapitulation ‘slipped in’, almost inconspicuously.  In the second movement Andante the paired violins blended expressively before all four voices united in a pointed rising arpeggio, which in turn was superseded by some magical pianissimo playing.  Robustness and strong rhythmic definition were the hallmark of the Menuetto, while the first violin skipped airily through the leaping scotch-snaps of the Trio.  Mozart closes with a set of theme and variations which allows each of the players to shine in turn, and I was struck in the first two variations by the way the sinuous cello line provided such a strong sense of direction as it underpinned first the melodic elaborations of Chilingirian and then the syncopated accents of Birks’ dark-toned, arpeggio-development of the theme.  Mészáros’ strong attack in the third variation created forward drive, preparing for an urgent Più Allegro in which the elegance of the reprised theme was shaken by forceful semiquaver triplets and insidious chromatic undercurrents.

I was less convinced by the final work of the programme: the last of Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets.  Perhaps, after their stellar efforts in Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, the Chilingirian found it difficult to regain their equilibrium and focus, for while the dialogue between first violin and cello at the opening of the Allegro con brio fizzed with energy worthy of an opera buffa, the ensemble during the second theme was not so secure and there were some uncharacteristic lapses of tuning towards the end of the exposition.  The Adagio ma non troppo unfolded fairly briskly but I missed that fusion of grace and intensity which so characterises Beethoven’s extensive and elaborate slow movements, though once again I was struck by the strong presence of the way that the middle voices spoke strongly through the texture.

The destabilising rhythms of the Scherzo seem almost deliberately and wryly designed by Beethoven to trip up the players, and the Chilingirian did not immediately achieve rhythmic security; I felt that Orton needed to be a stronger presence in order for the tension between the opposing rhythmic energies to be sufficiently taut.  The Trio slithered slickly – perhaps a tad too brisk, though, for the first violin’s skipping motif seemed to gallop with headlong haste.  But, the Chilingirian got both the tempo and dynamic just right in the introduction, La Malincolia, to the finale, pushing forward with intensity but always dignified, with the unsettling accents and eerie harmonic progressions given pointed emphasis but never exaggerated.  The complex form of the ensuing Allegretto quasi Allegro was well-shaped but the movement lacked a prevailing sense of ‘fun’ as it moved between the exuberance of the 1st violin’s bubbling semiquaver theme and the interjecting recollections of the eerie introductory material.  Overall, I felt this movement needed to dance more lightly on its feet, but the prevailing memory I shall take with me of this concert is of the stunning clarity and athleticism which characterised the Chilingirian’s performance of the Bartók.

The fifth and sixth quartets by Bartók can be heard in the remaining two concerts of the series, at Kings Place, on 5 February 2017 and 2 April 2017 respectively.

Claire Seymour

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