Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us


Bartók String Quartet No 4 in contexts
15 January 2006, St Giles Church and Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

Béla Bartók's 4th Quartet (1928) was featured as the centre piece of two very different concerts. As part of the BBC's Get Carter weekend festival the 97 year old composer was present to enjoy it between his own first and most recent quartets. The Arditti Quartet (with a new cellist; Irvine Arditti is the sole survivor of the original membership) told presenter John Tusa that it is still no less difficult than Elliott Carter's challenging music, and it was gripping as played and heard nearby from the side aisle of St Giles, where the sound is crisper than in the nave.

Countless thousands of words have been spoken and will be written around this festival, and analysis of Carter's difficult music is best left to the musicologists. Paul Griffiths assured us that it is all "straightforwardly, beautiful" (not always so, in my experience!) despite presenting "more information than we can take in". However, Elliott Carter's No 5 (1995) has an encouragingly clear structure, its twelve sections played continuously but easy to follow.

But the revelation of this concert was a timely revival of the ground-breaking first quartet of 1950/51, a huge edifice which held attention easily with its harmonic beauty underpinning free-ranging independence of thought and instrumental parts. Do try to hear it on BBC R3's Listen Again Get Carter 04.

In his interview at The Barbican the previous evening the ever youthful Elliott Carter (b 11 December 1908) told us of his interest in harmony (in contrast with Schoenberg's linear primacy). He had not convinced himself that using tone rows vertically produced convincing harmony, and instead of studying with Schoenberg when he came to America, their paths crossed and he travelled to Paris and studied basics to great advantage with Nadia Boulanger, who worked her students hard and insisted that even in eight part counterpoint every line had to be made true and expressive, "more like a crossword".

Carter's reminiscences were fascinating; how he "got" modern music in his teens by the excitement of Sacre de Printemps, when the audience was famously rioting, and he never looked back. Carter was befriended by Varese and Ives and enjoyed the period in the Twenties when contemporary music attracted huge audiences, until a reaction against modernism set in during the '30s (rather like ours here since the '80s). He studied English, not music, at Harvard because they taught nothing he wanted to learn, and persisted along his chosen path despite being surrounded by incomprehension (Varese became suicidally depressed as interest in his experimentation waned).

Another "take" on Bartok 4 across the river at QEH was an imaginative programming with the Takács String Quartet (new Quartet in Residence at South Bank Centre) who joined with the Hungarian folk group Mūzikas to relate Bartok's concert music to its folk research origins, with folk interspersions between the movements to sugar the pill for a sell-out audience of people who would not normally go to a string quartet recital. Their performance was finely honed and suave, but lacked the sense of danger felt at St Giles. Also, from Rear Stalls AA, I found it incongruous that they took a purist approach and eschewed Mūzikas's microphones, which were managed excellently for minimal sound enhancement.Although the three central character pieces sounded fine the Takács (with a new violist, Geraldine Walther) seemed to be struggling to project the strenuous first and last movements.

Close down in the stalls for the second half, all was fine for sequences of Bartok's original recordings, folk presentations of the tunes by Muzsikás with vocalist Márta Sebestyén and in various combinations with members of Takács. One is constantly drawn back to mentioning acoustics and seat positions when describing concert experiences! This concert has the makings of another best selling CD to follow Hannibal's the Bartok Album.

© Peter Grahame Woolf