Time to confess... I had never heard more than snippets of a Bartok quartet before this week. Shameful, I know. However, I had the absolute pleasure of hearing his second, fourth, and sixth quartets on a recital recently given by the Takács Quartet. I don’t think I could have gotten a better introduction to these works than through a performance from this group. The combination of these players and this repertoire made for what was probably my favorite quartet performance to date.
I obviously can’t comment with particular authority on these works, but my lack of knowledge allowed me to enter the recital with very fresh ears, which was exciting. This layman’s biggest takeaway was the vast sound spectrum Bartok imagined and the Takács convincingly shared. I’d had a reading assignment recently on the Bartok quartets (I chose not to supplement this homework with a decent listen, tsk tsk) in which the unusual effects he used for the strings were described in
tedious great detail. Well, you can write about pizzicato, col legno, and sul ponticello ad nauseum, but you have to actually hear it to realize that these are indeed special sounds. The Takács took pizzicato to a whole new level, creating sounds I’ve never experienced before. My favorite was a slowly rolled quadruple stop pizzicato (plucked near the bridge?) from the first violin that sounded like someone opening a creaking door. Bartok gave specific instructions for some of the pizzicati (the famous snaps, for example) but I’m sure the Takács invigorated the notation with their personal interpretation. Throughout the recital I was fascinated by the shifting soundscape, alternately folksy, frenetic, eerie, tender, mournful… take your pick of adjective, chances are you’ll hear it in a Bartok quartet.
A bonus of attending live performances is that in addition to the aural component you also get the visual experience. In the case of a gyrating soloist this can be a drawback, but not so in the case of the Takács. They all moved quite a bit, and it always seemed to be in the service of the music. I was especially captivated by how fun they made it look; first violinist Edward Dusinberre seemed to have rollicking good time in the upbeat movements. Of course they made their movements in mesto sections appropriate too, such as when Geraldine Walther turned towards the audience at the beginning of the sixth quartet to share the intimate viola solo. (Incidentally, Carnegie Hall recently uploaded several YouTube videos of the Takács Quartet presenting at a workshop. Here, Walther advises the Attacca Quartet to physically move to show the character in the third movement of the sixth Bartok quartet.)
If like me you haven’t yet gotten to know the Bartok quartets very well, I think a recording (or performance!) by the Takacs Quartet serves as a wonderful initiation.
More entries: December 2013
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