A photographer specializing in newborn babies has a sound on his phone that calms every baby because it imitates a Hoover. But when he turned it on for the newborn son of Barnabás Kelemen and Katalin Kokas, it totally didn't work. Then they tried playing conventional lullabies. No luck. So Kati, who is the viola player of their newly reborn Kelemen String Quartet, said for fun, “Let's turn on Bartók's Fourth Quartet over the phone,” and they both started to laugh: it was such a crazy idea because Bartók's fourth quartet is very fast and, she said, “quite drastic. But in a few seconds he started to just listen and his eyes grew big. And in a few minutes his eyes started closing and he fell asleep calmly and for a long time.”

Kelemen Quartet
© Andrea Felvégi

Barnabás and Kati spoke to me from Croatia, where they were on vacation fixing up an old boat with their kids as the crew: Hanna, the oldest, had just starred in the premiere of a live-streamed Romeo and Juliet based on a production at one of the main theaters in Budapest. 13-year old Gáspár is scheduled to perform one of Wienawski's violin concertos as soon as Covid restrictions are lifted. They had just celebrated Olga's fourth birthday and Zsigmond, who is now the star of a video gone viral, is seven weeks old. I had heard the Kelemen Quartet at Kaposvár, Budapest and Lockenhaus before they stopped playing with their previous members, and the first question I asked was how the new formation happened, what challenges and rewards the Bartók provided, and how they like the new technologies. Their conversation with me was uniquely collaborative as string quartet players must be in order to meet the demands of the profoundly collaborative repertoire they play. 

Kelemen Quartet
© Ora Hasenfratz

“We were always keeping our eyes open for possible other players,” Barnabás explained. “In 2016, I jumped in at a local house festival to play Bartók's First Sonata with Alexander Lonquich and it so happened that Jonian Ilias Kadesha, the great Albanian-Greek violinist, was in the audience and remembered it quite strongly when later I asked him and his fiancée to play a few quartets.” In fact, Kati added, “I didn't realize I had been sitting right next to our future quartet members until after we had already been rehearsing for a month and I happened to look at the video I shot.”

“But when we met last year at the Lockenhaus Festival,” Barnabás continued, “we still hadn't played. I knew that his fiancée, the English cellist Vashti Hunter, was a truly great artist, that they had played for ten years in the Trio Gaspard and that they had been an official couple for over seven years. This meant that personally, as string players and musically, they knew and felt each other very, very well. Both had the idea that some day they should try playing in a string quartet – and especially Bartók's quartets because they're quite amazing for string players.” 

The four also “spoke the same language,” Barnabás said, “because we all had worked with the same masters: Above all, Ferenc Rados, then two great string quartet leaders Gábor Takács-Nagy and András Keller, and András Schiff. These things really count.” In fact, Barnabás began studying with Rados at the Liszt Academy when he was 14. Kati also studied with him for many years in Budapest, while Vashti and Jonian studied with the renowned chamber music teacher for the last 10 years at the International Musicians' Seminar, Prussia Cove in Cornwall – founded by another great Hungarian violinist, Sándor Végh. 

Barnabás and Kati had known the Kodály CD Jonian and Vashti had made. “Jonian played organically, in symbiosis with his musical roots,” Barnabás told me. “And if we thought that an English cellist wouldn't be able to understand Bartók because English or Scottish or Irish types of folk music don't seem to have any connections to Hungarian music, Vashti understood the accentuations and articulations that Hungarian music needs. She proved that if someone listens to Hungarian folk songs and music played by authentic players, if someone has a little sensitivity, if they want to feel the way we speak, it's really not impossible. Bartók's music is totally universal.” Kati illustrated the universality of languages themselves with a story about a four-year old Transylvanian girl who was able to translate from Romanian to Hungarian and back. “The lady she was interpreting for asked: 'How is it possible that you can speak two languages at such a young age and so amazingly well?' The little girl answered: 'But it is actually only one language, just everything has two different words.'” 

Kelemen Quartet
© Ora Hasenfratz

And so the four talked about getting together in January and February for concerts at the Budapest Festival Academy. But when Barnabás mentioned the news to Gőz László, head of the Budapest Music Center, László remembered that Barnabás and Kati had suggested a Bartók cycle many years ago and said: 'Okay, why don't we do it at the launch of the first Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks festival in May?' Barnabás first reaction was: “Very funny.” There was no way it could happen that quickly with two new members. But Kati said: “Never say never. Let's think about it.”   

That was in December and a few days later Jonian and Vashti, who had free time due to Covid, arrived from Berlin and they started with the Fourth Quartet. “We just played and played,” Barnabás told me. “We barely talked, we just had fun and enjoyed it.” And soon Jonian and Vashti moved to Budapest. “They had completely learned the piece,” Kati said, “they knew it inside out, almost by heart. And they had many, many ideas even about the tiniest details. What we had learned in our ten years as a quartet is that you need four people who play on the same level technically and have similar opinions musically. But the most important may be that we share the same kind of obsession about working, that there is no end to the music, and that the rehearsals go on as long as we enjoy it and laugh.”

“We were also exceptionally honored,” Barnabás added, “to be having so many exciting lessons with Mr Rados and with another giant of Hungarian music, György Kurtág, during which we have played all six quartets for them.” You can see the process at work in a spontaneous, experimental rehearsal of the Fifth Quartet in a brilliant short documentary on their site.

It took a lot of work. Kati, then eight months pregnant, described rehearsing for six to eight hours a day and then discussing the music into the early morning. And so they learned all six quartets. It was a new challenge for Kati musically as well. She had played the six quartets quite often, even in one evening (with two intermissions) – as second violinist. But she had only played the viola part in the fifth. “When we had talked about forming a quartet, Jonian had happily offered to play viola parts occasionally, but he wouldn't start with the Bartóks.” After accepting “this very kind, fantastic and very crazy offer” for the newly re-established Kelemen Quartet to make its public debut playing all Bartók's quartets live-streamed, they also recorded the cycle beforehand for the radio performances, which will be available after the Bartók Spring concerts.

For musicians who were already accustomed to making CDs in a recording studio where they had to “pull out of their pockets” the atmosphere and feelings of a concert hall, playing in an empty hall was not so different until they began to realize the significance of an audience on the other side. “Then we actually we started to enjoy it,” Barnabás said, “because we were giving something with our music again, to people who are interested.” For the Festival Academy Budapest concerts they live-streamed free, and they had as many as 30,000 downloads. 

For Kati, live-streamed concerts were “lifesaving. Before Covid, our goals had been to make music, to always be practicing for something and to be on stage. And our kids had gotten used to our obsession which we always tried to keep on an even balance with our private lives. But when I found myself in a new world where the kids got their own breakfast and did their homework and didn't need me and there was no music, I lost my goal, I forgot who I am. When we started to play these new kinds of concerts, my whole life changed again because we had found these new musicians whom we play with and for. And still we miss the audience incredibly.”

This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary