PODCAST: Bartók’s String Quartet II

As part of the Chilingirian Quartet’s podcast series, Levon talks on Bartók’s 2nd Quartet, ahead of the quartet’s concert at Kings Place, London, 7th February 2016. The second concert in an historic series of six concerts to be given by the Chilingirian Quartet, commemorates the 70th anniversary of Bartók’s death by reconstructing the first complete cycle of Bartók quartets in the UK – given in the 1949/50 season by the London Chamber Music Society’s precursor organisation, the South Place Sunday Concerts.

Transcript of Podcast

I think when people see the name Bartok in programs, even now they feel like running away sometimes. I think it’s something that’s totally unjustified. It’s something that we’re trying to put right with the series we’re giving over the next two years at King’s Place. We’re repeating exactly the same programs that were given in 1949 and 50 at the Conway Hall, the first time that all Bartok quartets were played in London. This is the second concert. We’ve done already number one, Bartok Number One and the second one, we play Number Two which really is the most approachable of the quartets. Actually, I say to student groups and to amateur groups that it’s the most playable. They can play this. Maybe for the amateurs they might play not as fast as Bartok sometimes, but it’s eminently playable. It’s a real string quartet with amazing new things in it. This is, I think, the best introduction to Bartok’s music and particularly to his string quartets.

He incorporates some Arabic themes. I don’t think people are aware so much that Bartok, who was trawling around eastern Europe, of course collecting Hungarian music, Hungarian melodies and because the neighbouring countries are Romania, Ruthenia and Muldova.  All those, the style of music and the ethnic music he was familiar with. Before writing his second quartet, he made a trip to North Africa and he picked up one or two things from there. There are three movements and the middle movement there’s some real good Arabic music and, of course, it’s incorporated with Hungarian rhythms, but the actual melodies they’re wonderfully different. You have a very unusual piece of music that the middle movement, which is the fast, lively, fun, sinister, dry humoured but basically fast movement. You have the first movement which is very lyrical and very gentle, wistful. He wrote this, don’t forget, between 1915 and 1917, so it falls into that very sad period when Europe was at war. It’s very wistful and very sweet and very expressive.

Then, having played this crazy Hungarian Arabic second movement which all goes mad sometimes, he follows it  with the third and last movement which is bleak, absolutely dark, dark clouds, hopeless, everything that you might want to describe the hopelessness of the situation in Europe at that point, the first World War. It’s very static. It’s very expressive and then it’s very non-expressive, very black and yet everything in this work is, I think, totally understandable. It’s not overly dissonant. It’s not overly brutal, that comes a little later with particularly Three, Four and Five. It was written for the Hungarian quartet. This is the original one with Kepe and they premiered it before the first World War was over in Budapest.

That must have been an interesting first premier. It is compact, relatively speaking, and it’s in a sandwich in this concert where we’ve retained the original programs from 1949, 50. The sandwich consists of a Mozart quarter. Some might say his very greatest quartet. A very unsung great quartet, his Quartet in A Major, and I would only say one small thing about it. This is the piece that Beethoven loved. He went as far as to copy the last movement of this Mozart quartet in his sketch book. When somebody said to him “What is this?” He said, “Now there is a piece.” So Beethoven to compliment Mozart, which of course he acknowledged him as a great composer, but to actually pick out this particular piece as the one that he thought was Mozart’s most interesting I think is enough for me to place it right at the very, very top. It’s interesting his longest quartet. It’s a wonderful start, if you like, with this great Beethoven like Mozart quartet.

Then, in the second half to end, we play the champagne quartet of Beethoven, his G Major quartet. Unbelievable fun and games in three out of the four movements and then a beautiful, serene, lyrical slow movement but with a surprise in the middle where he writes some incredibly fast music. This is a very joyful piece and there you have a fantastically contrasting program. The central work, which I suppose was the focus of the very first cycle in London and, of course, it’s the focus of our present cycle.

Technically, his music is challenging. You can’t get away from it. Having lived with this music for 40 years now, it feels simply like a wonderful string quartet, like a [Heiden 00:06:19] quartet and the technical challenges have to be met by each individual member of the quartet, whichever quartet it is, ours or another group. Yet, as with other music, you have to bring out the phrasing, the moods, the articulation, so if a group plays Bartok, either in a panic-stricken way because they can’t play it individually or in what I would call a sort of contemporary frame of mind rather than putting it as a son of list. Something that is fundamentally based on music that they, the listener, will know and understand and love. Bartok, of course, had his own character, his dry, strong, shy character and uncompromising technical compositional style.

Within all of that, there is real music. What I would challenge is whether enough performances of Bartok, particularly these earlier pieces, Number One, Number Two, which have enough musicality and lyricism and the technical problems should not surface for the listener. The players have to be good enough just to bring out the music.

I think it’s very simple like that so it sits, in particularly this program, I think it’s very interesting it sits so comfortably for me within these great two pieces by Mozart and Beethoven. You would, I hope, recognize it as just another quartet by written by another great quartet composer. We’d have a lot of fun. We are having a lot of fun rehearsing it right now. Interestingly enough, two of us, Ronnie and I have played this many, many, many, many times and, in this case, it’s new for Suzie and Steve. They are so familiar with the style of Bartok and we’ve done Bartok quartets before, so it’s also very exciting, I think, all around to explore this wonderful piece with two of us having done it a lot and two of us doing it for the first time.

I think that element of it is making it like a fresh interpretation, working out how to go around the corners. If I had to tell the difference between Bartok and Mozart or Bartok and Beethoven, it’s the change of speed, what we call tempo. It’s these changes which are much, much more frequent. More speeding up, more slowing down, more different tempos. Just much more, if you like, romantic. Like some of you play Chopin, you know, they’re pull it about, well, there’s that very strong element in Bartok and in the slow movements he’s always subtly changing the tempo, officially changing it.

Mozart and Beethoven might have signalled to us a slightly different feeling without marking it. We, as the interpreters, have to know that but Bartok clearly marks slower, faster, much faster, ten times faster, ten times slower, so, I guess for the performers and for the listeners, that is a challenge. Again, I think it’s up to the performers to do it, not to make it sound like a mathematical problem or equation. Again, sometimes people think that you need to be mathematical to play Bartok. I think, of course, you need to be able to count but I think you need good rhythm. I go back to one of the most brilliant mathematicians in history, Albert Einstein, by what we know about stories about him. He played the violin. It seems that he had shocking bad rhythm, so good rhythm is not the same as being good at mathematics. Some of the best mathematicians are the most rigidly unmusical players. They might play all of the notes, and they might think they are doing it brilliantly, but they have no feel for rhythm.

In Bartok, you have to play very complex stuff but with basically good rhythm. That comes with birth, from birth. Bartok was basing his music on living alongside and amongst great folk fiddlers and singers who never went to music school or anything like that. They were just natural musicians.

If you would like to come to a concert at King’s Place, I would strongly recommend to come to the pre-concert talk just to hear about it and maybe get familiar with it. Then, come with absolute open ears and almost like, just listen. They’ll be a piece at the beginning and there will be a second piece and it just happens that the second one is the Bartok. You don’t need any special preparation. I think it’s so beautiful and so clear if we do it well, then you have no problems as an audience. This could be your entry point into what he does later. We’ll be doing the Third Quartet, of course, in March. Wonderful piece, much shorter so, again, very easy to handle. More wild, more sort of real wild stuff in that but I think, again, very straightforward when it comes to it.

Then, next year, Four, Five and Six, so I think Number Two is the big one for just understanding, getting into the style.

Bartok String Quartet No. 3

The Chilingirian Quartet perform Bártok’s third quartet in a programme with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op. 18 No. 1 and Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C, K465 at Kings Place, London.

6.30pm Sunday 24th April 2016

Pre-concert talk: 5.15pm, St Pancras Room
Professor Amanda Bayley, distinguished Bartók scholar and author of the Cambridge Companion to Bartók discusses his fourth string quartet.