Disaster almost struck this recital by the Kelemen Quartet even before they got to Auckland. Dora Kokas, the quartet's cellist, suffered a fractured wrist after a collision with a surfer in Sydney, rendering her unable to perform. Rather than cancel their tour, the Kelemens improvised a programme of duets and trios in their Sydney concert, all the while flying out Auer Quartet cellist Ákos Takács to take Kokas' place. Having a replacement cellist necessitated some alterations to the planned programme in Auckland; Kurtág was swapped out for Kodály and Bartók's String Quartet no. 5 was changed to his String Quartet no. 4. The Kelemen Quartet is an award-winning ensemble and it is easy to hear why; their confident, almost faultless, playing in a programme cobbled together in such circumstances was a wonder to behold. This flexibility extended to the instruments, Katalin Kokas and Gábor Homoki trading second violin and viola between themselves a couple of times between the different works.

Kelemen Quartet © Tamás Dobos
Kelemen Quartet
© Tamás Dobos

Remaining from the original line-up was Mozart's great String Quartet no. 19 in C major “Dissonance”, K.465. The opening bars are as startling as ever, the performers here being very spare on the vibrato to emphasize the titular dissonance effectively. The sudden shift into the C major Allegro section was akin to the sun emerging from behind a dark cloud, the quartet adding just the right element of brio to Mozart's ebullient writing. This contrasted extremely well with the following slow movement. Here, the long melodic lines were phrased with aching beauty. If anything, the last movement was perhaps a little too breathless, but technically it certainly didn't hold any terrors for these players.

Despite some sadness at missing a rare chance to hear a work of Kurtág live, Kodály's Serenade for two violins and viola, Op.12 filled the gap admirably, giving the chance to reassess Kodály as more than just a footnote to Bartók in musical history. Sitting astride the boundary between the classical tradition and the folk music of his native Hungary, Kodály's work proved to be a minor masterpiece in the hands of the Kelemens. A nocturnal mood permeated the slow movement, with long, languid melodies singing out stunningly in this performance. The “folk” sections of the third movement were played with such gusto and flexibility; clearly this music runs deep in these players' veins. Here, and in the Bartók quartet especially, the Kelemens could almost have been a single instrument, so united was the vision of the scores. This kind of synthesis is rare, even among ensembles who have been playing together for far longer. I suppose the familial ties of the Kelemens don't hurt either – first violinist Barnabás Kelemen is married to second violinist/violist Katalin Kokas (and the missing cellist is her sister)!

The Haydn String Quartet no. 27 in D major, Op.20, no. 4 was performed smoothly and with confidence, though it hardly matched up to what came before and what was to follow in intensity. In the variations of the second movement, each instrument got its own turn to shine with the melody and each brought their own individual brand of lyricism to the part.

In a brief talk before the piece began, Barnabás Kelemen described Bartók's String Quartet no. 4 as “rough and tough” music and so it proved to be here, the players never afraid to sacrifice beauty of tone for biting intensity. Sometimes the tone was almost harsh (appropriately so), with dynamics ranging between a whispering thread of sound and a fortissimo with almost orchestral overtones. One really felt the symmetrical arc of the piece in this performance, the Kelemens drawing strong parallels between the first and last movements particularly. Like the Kodály, the folk elements came through, but this time submerged in a much more complex harmonic texture. Replacement cellist Ákos Takács was utterly superb in the great song-like arcs of the third movement, the “kernel” around which the rest of the work is built. The pizzicato of the fourth movement was so forcefully delivered that one of Homoki's strings snapped shortly after the beginning, necessitating a quick dash off stage for a replacement. It is testament to the professionalism of the players and the identification of the audience that this delay did not inhibit the concentrated intensity or the perceived symmetry of the performance.

The encore was the final movement of Beethoven's “Razumovsky” Quartet (Op.59, no. 3), performed with magnificent virtuosity at quite an improbable speed. Auckland has not seen chamber music of this sheer magnetic excitement since, funnily enough, the Takács Quartet were here a couple of years ago. There must be something in the water in Hungary for that country to concurrently have two such magnificent string quartets.