A Fine Conclusion to the Chilingirian Quartet’s Bartók Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bartók, Beethoven: Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian & Ronald Birks [violins], Susie Mészáros [viola], Stephen Orton [cello]), Kings Place, London, 2.4.2017. (CS)

Mozart – String Quartet No.17 in B-flat major K.458
Bartók – String Quartet No.5 SZ.102 (BB110)
Beethoven – String Quartet in C minor Op.18 No.4

The Chilingirian Quartet saved their best until last.  This final concert in this historic series which has reconstructed the first complete cycle, given in 1949/50, of Bartók’s quartets in the UK saw the Quartet consistently rise to heights that have sometimes only intermittently been attained during the ambitious two-year project.

Two things that have been unwavering during the series, though, are the Chilingirian’s intense commitment to Bartók’s music and the adventurous spirit with which they have relished the rhythmical conundrums, extended string techniques, unsettling timbres, folky dynamism, eerie melancholy and sheer explosive, technical bravura of the composer’s six quartets. Their performance of the Fourth Quartet was astonishingly audacious and dramatic; the concentrated tautness of the single-movement architecture of the Third Quartet  was no less impressive.

It was Bartók’s Fifth Quartet which was at the heart of this final concert, which presented the programme originally performed by the Aeolian Quartet on 30th April 1950.  The Fifth is less dissonant and strident than the other quartets in the cycle; at least, there are more episodes where themes are more readily recognisable, though the harmonic progressions are no less complex and ambiguous.  The Chilingirian communicated a strong sense of the arching symmetry of the quartet.  They made much of the thematic diversity and contrasting timbres, and used the polyphonic unfolding of ideas to create a driving energy.  The unison repetitions of the first theme of the Allegro were forceful but also resonant, creating a breadth so different from the almost choking density of the Fourth Quartet.  From this singular idea, there was a gradual rhythmic accumulation and ‘stretching out’ of the sinewy, chromatic melodic ideas, which were penetrated by powerful pizzicato punctuations.

After the agitation and immediacy of the pounding repetitions and simultaneous thematic statements of the opening movement, the pointillistic delicacy of the Adagio molto transported us to ethereal realms.  The first violin and viola engaged in a halting exchange that developed into a searching, if somewhat tentative, melody, which Levon Chilingirian shaped eloquently.  The small folk-derived fragments ultimately faded into muted wisps and slithers, and after the mysterious soft trills and quasi-glissandi of the close, the arrival of the ‘Alla bulgarese’ rhythms (4+2+3) of the Scherzo effected a real jolt.  The Chilingirian conjured tremendous polyphonic vigour in this third movement, then slithered blithely through the ever more complicated rhythms of the muted trio section.

The fourth movement Andante returned us to the ‘night-music’ timbres of the second, the soft, descending pizzicato threads of the upper strings countering the cello’s gentle upward motion.  The textures were arresting as the tiny motifs enlarged and intertwined with growing intricacy, culminating in a rhetorical declaration in which Chilingirian’s high E-string sang powerfully above the interlocking motifs.  The Finale was furious and urgent, as motives disintegrated then reconvened in precise fugal counterpoint.

I have not always found the Chilingirian Quartet’s ‘Mozart style’ to my taste during this series, but the bucolic boisterous of the composer’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet which opened the concert seemed more suited to their somewhat robust approach.  They were in relaxed mood at the start of this recital, and there was some wry eye-brow raising and gentle joshing as Mészáros shuffled through her part, apparently unable to locate the elusive quartet.  But, once underway the Allegro vivace assai settled into a vigorous but easeful swing, with a smiling Levon Chilingirian encouragingly coaxing his more grave-faced musical partners.  The communal dialogue of the development section was taut, the variant ideas neatly shaped.  The tuning and ensemble took a short while to settle at the start of the Menuetto but cellist Stephen Orton, as so often in this series, provided a sure foundation and strong sense of line to which the other players could anchor, and the Trio was airy and light.

The Adagio had real gravitas, with Levon Chilingirian crafting an expressive and well-shaped melodic line.  In this movement there was an effective contrast between the tautness of the decorative elements and the lyrical expansiveness of the main theme, which Orton restated with warmth and composure in the final section.  The Allegro assai drew spirited, well-coordinated playing from Chiligirian and Ronald Birks, though as the movement ensued it sometimes seemed as if Chilingirian would run away from the other members of the ensemble!  After the genial dexterity of the opening, the minor-key modulations and counterpoint of the development brought an air of seriousness, before the exuberance resumed and the movement romped to a close.

Beethoven’s Quartet in C minor Op.18 No.4 was the last of the set of six to be composed and is the only minor key quartet of the Op.18s.  C minor is always a turbulent tonality in Beethoven’s hands and the Chilingirian emphasised the drama, plunging straight into the restless opening and driving forward relentlessly until they eased for the more lyrical second subject.  In the development, they moved slickly between the contrasting motivic ideas, creating coherence from diversity.  There is no genuine ‘slow’ movement but the Chilingirian took the Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto even faster than I expected and, though Birks’ opening theme was not without grace, the central episodes of the movement felt surprisingly hearty.  Moreover, the Menuetto had a brooding quality and the unease and tension was enhanced by the surging repetition of the opening material after the Trio.  There was a clearing of the clouds in the final Allegro though, the boisterous dancing theme contrasting with a bright chorale.

Thus, the Chilingirian Quartet reached the end of this remarkable series of concerts at Kings Place.  Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, first performed in Washington D.C. in April 1935, was commissioned by and dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge who, during the early years of the twentieth century, used her not inconsiderable financial resources to promote new music.  Coolidge set out her mission: ‘My plea for modem music is not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.’  And, there is no doubt that the Chilingirian Quartet, while challenging the Kings Place audience with music that, perhaps, they were not sure they ‘liked’, have enabled us to enjoy and appreciate the creative and human achievement of Béla Bartók.

Claire Seymour

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