Uneven Performances in the Penultimate Instalment of the Chilingirian’s Bartók Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bartók, Beethoven: Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian & Ronald Birks [violin], Susie Mészáros [viola], Stephen Orton [cello]), Kings Place, London 5.2.2017 (CS)

Mozart – String Quartet No.22 in B flat K.589
Bartók String Quartet No.6 (1939)
Beethoven – String Quartet in D Op.18 No.3

The Chilingirian Quartet are reaching the final stages of this two-season series at Kings Place, in which they are commemorating the 70th anniversary of Bartók’s death by reconstructing the first complete cycle of Bartók’s six quartets in the UK.

There has been much to enjoy so far. I was fully persuaded by a fluent, communicative performance of Beethoven’s Op.18 No.2 in the second concert of the series (review). A driving, intense rendition of Bartók’s Third Quartet in April last year – notable for the players’ assured negotiation of the complex polyrhythms and the diverse, robust tonal palette (review) – was followed by a stunning account of the composer’s Fourth Quartet in October, when I admired ‘the visceral energy and instinctual revelations conjured by the Chilingirian’ (review).

This particular programme, originally given by the Martin Quartet on 16th April 1950, did not find the Chilingirian at their best, however. We all have ‘off-days’, of course: and, on this occasion the players did seem a little ‘off form’, individually and collectively – and not infrequently, off key. The four voices struggled to find coherence and balance; usually, cellist Stephen Orton can be relied upon to provide strong foundations and a sure sense of form, but he seemed rather reticent at times. The ensemble was quite untidy, too; nothing disastrous, just a noticeable lack of cleanness and precision. The players did not always seem to have agreed on a unified style of articulation or phrasing: viola player Susie Mészáros had a tendency to add heaviness or robust emphasis – to a staccato motif, say – that was not matched by her colleagues. Indeed, Ronald Birk’s second violin generally needed to make its presence more strongly felt. Levon Chilingirian is always a characterful leader and, in the absence of collective unity, his confident musical announcements were even more pronounced and at times idiosyncratic. There were some glaring slips, including some grimace-inducing wrong notes at significant cadential points; both the frequency of the errors and the waywardness of the intonation increased as the concert progress, as the players seemed to struggle to maintain concentration.

If this somewhat negative overview gives the impression that this was a ‘bad’ performance, then I should counter that, and note that any Quartet that can convincingly articulate the quicksilver contrapuntal exchanges that characterise Bartók’s densely motivic Sixth Quartet, and can capture the full range of the work’s extreme emotions – from unutterable sadness to biting sarcasm to unaffected buoyancy – deserves praise. The Chilingirian showed appreciation of the way that Bartók incessantly breaks up his material and puts it back together again, as if seeking some elusive ‘essence’. They assimilated the chromatic, modal and polytonal discourses into persuasive dialogues; they balanced agitation and stasis. And, they integrated the shadow cast by the introductory Mesto within the burlesque, bravura and brightness of the intervening episodes.

The viola’s opening lament was eloquent and dignified: centred of tone with a firm, focussed line. If the octave unisons of the ensuing short Più mosso, pesante were less than perfectly in tune, the players did generate a sense of organic development and unfolding. The Vivace was an excited dance, as the tiny, folk germ-motif slithered between the voices, diminishing, inverting and extending with relentless invention and energy. Despite the sometimes frenetic activity, the texture was often surprisingly transparency. Perhaps more might have been made of the dynamic contrasts. But, where appropriate, there was delicacy; elsewhere, agitation.

The dotted rhythms of the Marcia stomped with a heavy, almost lop-sided, tread – perhaps a reference to the growing military threat in Europe in 1939, when the Quartet was written. The varied string effects – glissandi, tremolando, challenging double-stopping including an extended passage in fifths which tests the cello’s accuracy and stamina – were not simply decorative virtuosity but were used to summon a spirit of rhapsodic freedom, especially in the animated trio section. I may be wrong, but something seemed to go awry in the Mesto preceding the third movement, Burletta. But the latter’s contrasting blocks of sound were well-differentiated, the pounding, decorated down bows recalling the wildness of the composer’s early Burlesques for piano and his ballet, The Wooden Prince. The Andantino trio was a breath of air, a cleansing of the palette after the Burletta’s bitterness, though Birks’ lyrical theme might have been projected with more dolce.

For me, the final Mesto was the highpoint of the whole concert. There was a real sense of re-engagement with the mood established at the work’s opening and a compelling concentration as the sequences expanded and ascended. The music seemed, metaphorically, to move ever further away; eventually we found ourselves, à la T.S. Eliot, back at our starting point, with the viola’s restatement of the lament. It was Orton, though, who had the final word as the cello’s pizzicato chords, gently but firmly placed, faded eerily into the silence.   A pity, then, that that silence was shattered by the clatter of a book or other object hitting the floor, somewhere in the Hall.

So far in this series, I haven’t found the Chilingirian’s performances of the Mozart quartets which opened the original programmes entirely to my taste. I’ve longed for more classical grace and greater spaciousness, finding that the Quartet made ‘heavy weather of Mozart’s String Quartet in A K.464’ (February 2016) and that a ‘little less haste would have given greater elegance to the melodic lines’ of Mozart’s Dissonance (April 2016). On this occasion, Mozart’s String Quartet in B flat, the second of the Prussian quartets written in 1789-90 for King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, was full of vigour and assertiveness, but once again lacked ‘polish’.

Looking at the jottings I made shortly after the concert, I can see that a detailed recount of both the Mozart quartet and Beethoven’s Op.18 No.3 would risk becoming a list of ‘things I did not like’; which would be unfair, both to the players who did offer some engaging musical ideas and lively playing, and to the many in the audience who evidently found much to admire and applaud.

So, suffice it to say that the restless conversations of Mozart’s quartet, especially in the opening Allegro, were charged with energy, if a little unruly. And, Orton’s lovely solo at the start of the Larghetto showed once again that he can shape a lyrical phrase. Some vigorous repeated up bows brought vitality and interest to the Menuetto. The rising sevenths which open Beethoven’s Op.18 No.3 arched in relaxed fashion and created a sense – in media res – of having joined a comfortable conversation among friends. The Andante con moto felt hurried though; where was the expanse, warmth and stateliness? There was some fancy finger-work in the scurrying passages of the minor-key trio of Beethoven’s third movement.

In the light of the above, an encore – and yet again one asks, why is one needed, especially when reproducing an historic programme? – could only confirm the preceding misgivings or provide the relief and pleasure of contradiction. I’m afraid it was the former. The Chilingirian offered us the rhythmically whimsical Scherzo from the Op.18 No.6 quartet but captured none of its wry rhythmic riddles and unsettling imbalances. Where subtlety is required there was weight, which actually overpowered any sense of the precariousness in which Beethoven delights.   In October last year, when the whole quartet was performed, I commented that the trio ‘slithered slickly – perhaps a tad too brisk, though, for the first violin’s skipping motif seemed to gallop with headlong haste’; here, the precipitousness destroyed the tongue-in-cheek insouciance of the skipping, sliding phrase.

One more concert in the series remains. On 2nd April, the Chilingirian will perform Mozart’s String Quartet No.17 in B flat K.458, Bartók’s String Quartet No.5 and Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor Op.18 No.4. This is an important series of concerts, and the Chilingirian have given us some thrilling renditions of the Bartók quartets. I am hopeful, no, confident that they will rise to the occasion.

Claire Seymour

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