The six string quartets of Bela Bartok were written over a span of only three decades but seem to tell a life's story, and a century's. In the First Quartet, of 1909, Bartok starts by bidding fond farewell to lingering Romanticism and kicks up his heels in a dance of a new, modern age by the end. He's also in love. Through the course of the cycle, Bartok grapples with the modern world, but by the sad Sixth Quartet, of 1939, he bids farewell again, this time to a Europe gone mad, as he prepares to leave for America. What dance there is, is now angry burlesque. He's disconsolate.
There is much, of course, in between, and it is a narrative that has often been told by many of the great postwar string quartets. But the quartet that has identified the most with the composer's story is the one that takes his name. The Bartok Quartet, which was formed in Hungary in 1957, has now been playing this cycle for 40 years (10 longer than the span of their composition). And it did so once more, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA.
There has become something almost ritualistic in the Bartok's playing of the six quartets. Violinists Peter Komlos and Geza Hargitai, violist Geza Nemeth and cellist Laslo Mezo are as priests or rabbis chanting a liturgy. One doesn't sense any effort on the part of the players. The music just seems to spring forth.
The Bartok is an old quartet and an Old World one. The members play on extremely fine 18th century instruments, and they play as one. They breathe together and each musician makes exactly the same kind of sound. Their collective tone is simply remarkable--rich, loud, burnished, gorgeous. They have long internalized the moodiness of this music, the intensity of it, its soul. They dig deep. We don't hear string quartet sound like this anymore.
Still, the Bartok Quartet doesn't own the Bartok quartets, and never has. The scores may come from the first half of the century, but their proper place has been in the second half. Although they were played when new, they never made much impression. Indeed, their real history seems to begin when the Juilliard String Quartet played the six as a cycle in 1948 at Tanglewood. The music world acted as if this were a major discovery, and almost overnight they entered the repertory and began to influence composers.
But what the music world also reacted to was the Juilliard's brash, theatrical playing of them. So by the time, in the late '50s, Hungarian musicians, like those in the Bartok Quartet, attempted to reclaim the composer, it was too late to make much international effect. Bartok was already modern music.
All this is still felt in the Bartok Quartet performances. The most personal quartets, the first and the sixth, are the ones that the ensemble gets the most out of. It also captures the Hungarian flavor of dances and rhythms in the middle four as naturally as we are ever likely to hear. And the players certainly seem to understand Bartok's moodiness.
But the adventure in the music is less their concern. In the second and especially the third quartets, the composer moves increasingly into abstraction, breaking new ground in the kinds of effects a string quartet can produce. Then he turns away from extreme modernism becoming increasingly convinced of the power of folk music. With the great Fifth Quartet, Bartok finds a common ground between the modern and folk and breaks another kind of new ground.
A certain sameness, however, was felt in the performances Tuesday and Wednesday. All the quartets, all the movements, all the different kinds of gestures in them, seemed to have the same kind of heavy weight. And to save the bad news for last: The Bartok is no longer a strong ensemble in one crucial area--intonation.
Near the end of the Fifth Quartet, the composer suddenly breaks into parody asking the music to be played indifferently and out of tune. The Bartoks play nothing indifferently, and since they now play regularly out of tune, the passage lost its uniqueness. But that did give it a poignancy that Bartok may have also intended. The Bartok Quartet is here to help remind us that the Bartok string quartets contain two narratives, that of the composer and his times, and they weren't always in sync.