When is a quartet not a quartet? Answer: when the cellist breaks her wrist while surfing. Such was the bad news that Carl Vine, Artistic Director of Musica Viva, had to convey to the audience expecting to hear the Kelemen String Quartet in the City Recital Hall on Saturday afternoon. Like true professionals, the remaining instrumentalists had decided to offer a substitute program. In the event, we were treated to a duo recital by the husband and wife team, Barnabás Kelemen and Katalin Kokas (Gábor Homoki, though listed on the replacement program sheet, did not appear). While the cast was therefore only at 50% of its strength, there was no shortage in imagination and energy from the performers, and these deservedly met with a very warm response.

Kelemen Quartet © Tamás Dobos
Kelemen Quartet
© Tamás Dobos

Of the composers listed on the original program, Bartók was the only one to survive the enforced changes. The first half was given over to his Duos for Two violins, Sz.98, BB104: 44 of them, to be precise. Kelemen mentioned in his introduction that he and his wife had recorded them previously, and the performance demonstrated their intimate familiarity with these folk-tune arrangements. The two violinists explored a wide range of tone colours from delicate whispers through passionate lyricism to the most abrasive attack. They were very alive to the relative importance of their parts, and when called for, one player would back away to give the other prominence. Highlights included the squeaky ornaments in the bagpipe-imitating numbers (36 and 36a, based on Bartók’s original materials), and the obvious relish they took in the “Forgatós” or “Romanian whirling dance” (38). The “Arabian Dance” (42) contained a wealth of “oriental” gestures, including augmented 2nds and ostinato figures, as well Bartók’s signature pizzicato, in which the string is plucked so as to rebound off the fingerboard.

While the performance was inventive and enjoyable, it is questionable whether in an ideal world one would choose to hear the four books of duos in a row. This is not because the music lacked variety; Bartók borrowed from the folk traditions of a number of different lands and regions, and the pieces (which included a Maypole dance, teasing songs and a limping dance) were indeed disparate in character. However, these minute-long duos were intended as individual studies of increasing difficulty, not to be played sequentially. Consequently, there was no larger architectural design such as is found in Bartók’s String Quartets, and the listener’s concentration was inevitably fractured into these bite-size chunks. My craving for what might be called more intellectual satisfaction was only briefly appeased by the Prelude and Canon (37).

The second half was a more rough and ready affair, or perhaps it is fairer to say that the pair’s performance style was better suited to the folkishly modern than the classical. The opening Sonata in A major for two violins by the French Baroque composer Jean-Marie Leclair was a little ragged on occasion, and the intonation went astray especially in the central minuet-like movement. Mozart’s 1783 Duo in G major for violin and viola KV423 followed, which Kelemen informed us had first been published as part of a set of six by under Michael Haydn’s name. The combination of viola and violin is one Mozart would revisit a few years later for his Sinfonia Concertante. Kokas switched to the viola for this piece, and although she was perfectly comfortable on the larger instrument, her sound was a bit undernourished in her infrequent solo moments. There were some imaginative touches in this performance but again it could have done with more poise.

The last item was a pair of Études-Caprices for two violins by the great nineteenth-century Polish virtuoso, Henryk Wieniawski. The first of these was appropriately larded with vibrato, and Kokas demonstrated a pleasing tone during her statement of the theme. The second was the rabidly virtuoso “Tempo di Saltarello”, better known to many in the arrangement for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler. Like many another before him, Kelemen totally ignored the warning ma non troppo vivo (not too lively), and gave a gutsy if not perfect performance. There was more drama in the encore: Kelemen was supposed to showcase his viola skills, but when tuning up, he broke a string. With what seems to be characteristic chutzpah, he swapped back to the violin, and adapted his part in the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia without blinking an eye. Improvisation, energy, imagination: if the two players we heard are representative, the Kelemen Quartet has these qualities in abundance. Given time, they’ll surely be able to rein their exuberance in when needed, but in the meantime, it’s going to be exciting.