Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are among the canonical chamber works of the twentieth century, yet live performances are relatively rare, especially the complete cycle. Sponsored by the Cleveland Chamber Music Society, the brilliant Takács Quartet treated Cleveland to all six, spread over two nights, with quartets 1, 3, and 5 on Monday, March 17, and quartets 2, 4, and 6 on Tuesday, March 18. Although I was only able to attend the first installment, the Takács’ achievement was astonishing in every way. One would be hard pressed to imagine a more virtuosic and musical performance of these thorny works. Each of the two evenings’ programs was arranged so as to survey the composer’s compositional growth from the age of 27 in 1908 to his mature works from the mid- to late 1930s when Bartók emigrated to the United States, and from being a mostly unknown young composer to having his works commissioned by the great American musical patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

Image of Takacs Quartet © Ellen Appel
Image of Takacs Quartet
© Ellen Appel

The Takács performances took place in the smallish, rectangular sanctuary of Plymouth Congregational Church in Shaker Heights, a, typical New England colonial-style church, seating a few hundred people, with a shallow balcony surrounding the space. The acoustics are relatively dry, but with a resonance and intimacy ideal for chamber music.

In 1907 – 1908, two important things influenced Bartók: his encounters with the music of Claude Debussy, and the Hungarian folksongs that he collected during his adventures with Zoltán Kodály. The folksong influence persists through all of Bartók’s quartets, rarely with precise musical quotations; but rhythms, melodic motives, harmony and style of the folksongs are ever-present. The Quartet no. 1, Op. 7 (Sz. 40), in three interconnected movements, was also Bartók’s response to an unrequited romance. The style is austere and chromatic, with dense polyphony. Yet with all the complexity, the Takács players found moments of lyrical and yearning beauty. Here, and elsewhere in the concert, the precision of the playing was astonishing, a feat coming from long years of rehearsing and playing together. (Indeed, the most recent player, violist Geraldine Walther, joined the group in 2005. Violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér are the two remaining founding members of the quartet from its beginning in 1975 in Budapest. First violinist Edward Dusinberre joined in 1993.)

The harmonic style of the 1927 Quartet no. 3 (Sz. 85) is severe, pushing tonality beyond easily recognizable key structures, yet the rhythms and melodic structures of folksongs are never far from the surface. The music is stripped to its essence, with tiny motives endlessly developed and manipulated. The quartet is in a single, unbroken fifteen-minute movement, but with four clear sections. The third section, identified as “recapitulation”, is not a simple recapitulation as we might find in a classical sonata, but rather a further development of material from the slow opening section. The “coda” also redevelops the material from the second section. In this quartet the Bartók requires advanced performing techniques: bowing techniques, odd glissandi, and strong pizzicati. While it might not be “lovable” or easy music, the Takács Quartet made us admire Bartók’s genius and their mastery of the style.

The Quartet no. 5 (Sz. 102) dates from 1934, was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and premièred in Washington, DC. Its five movements are in a large symmetrical arc, with fast movements 1 and 5; slow movements 2 and 4; and a scherzo as the central third movement. Of the three quartets heard on this first evening’s installment, the fifth is the most “conventional,” and conventionally beautiful. It is full of overt references to folk music, including a jokingly trite tune close to the end of the quartet. One of the main “themes” is a series of repeated notes; in the second movement a rising, ecstatic melody in the first violin is supported by sustained triadic chords. The quartet also features Bartók’s “night music” techniques of trills, tremolos, and isolated pizzicati. The scherzo uses rhythms of Bulgarian folk music, nine quick beats per measure, grouped 4 + 2 + 3. The closing of the quartet is a wild fugue.

The large, attentive audience gave the Takács Quartet an ecstatic ovation with stomping feet and rhythmic clapping, bringing the players back for numerous bows.