Last night the Borromeo String Quartet (violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim) began their one-week residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a marathon concert presenting the six string quartets composed by Béla Bartók. Including time for the two intermissions, this was an event that exceeded three hours by a moderate duration. Some might have argued that having only a single intermission would have helped, but that would have interfered with the logic of the overall plan.
As with the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, Bartók’s quartets can be divided roughly into three groups, although it would be a mistake to call those groups “early,” “middle,” and “late.” Each of the groups has two quartets; and the first group is the one that can clearly be called “early.” The first quartet was written and revised between 1908 and 1909, while the second was written between 1914 and 1917. This was a period when Bartók was exploring a variety of different paths to composition, including one based on his ethnomusicological field work with Zoltán Kodály. The third and fourth quartets were written in 1927 and 1928, respectively; and both show Bartók establishing a unique voice as a composer. That voice had matured by the time of the last two quartets, written in 1934 and 1939, respectively; and the fifth quartet was written on a commission by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. However, Bartók’s “late” period would probably align with his move to the United States in 1940.
Of these three groups the middle tends to be the most interesting. One is aware of many different dimensions that Bartók is exploring in search of that aforementioned voice. He is probably best known for his nonstandard approaches to playing instruments of the string family, many of which are percussive but also involve sonorities that almost mask the fundamental pitch as a result of bowing very close to the bridge. Bartók also experimented with overall architecture. The third quartet is a single uninterrupted movement that divides relatively clearly into four sections, the third being a recapitulation of the first and the fourth a coda. In other words the third quartet takes a single sonata-allegro movement as its point of departure. The fourth is five movements in a mirror structure, a slow central movement in which each of the instruments is given a soliloquy, flanked on either side with rapid scherzo movements, replete with “special effects,” and beginning and ending with basic allegro movements.
In addition, while Bartók had already been exploring dissonance in his first two quartets, both the third and fourth emerge as efforts to establish a logical departure from the fundamentals of harmonic progression. This is not really a venture into the sort of atonality that Arnold Schoenberg was beginning to explore while Bartók was working on his first quartet. However, it involves a focus of attention on a single pitch whose tonality, so to speak, does not have to be reinforced by triads.
All of these elements of Bartók’s “voice” were readily accessible to the attentive listener through Borromeo’s account of the third and fourth quartets. It was almost as if they were leading a guided tour through the new terrain that Bartók was just beginning to map for himself. The performances of the first two quartets, on the other hand, came across as somewhat less confident. Examination of the first quartet, in particular, reveals it to be the result of comprehensive understanding of the two major string quartet composers that had preceded Bartók, Beethoven himself and his teacher Joseph Haydn. To invoke Isaac Newton’s famous metaphor, Bartók knew how to climb up on the shoulders of these two giants without simply appropriating their strengths. Nevertheless, Borromeo seemed a bit hesitant, particularly in the first quartet, almost as if they had not yet established what Bartók was seeing in the distance or how Haydn and Beethoven afforded him a better point of view.
Nevertheless, the strengths in their approaches to the third and fourth quartets continued just as confidently into the fifth and sixth. At this point, however, the more urgent question was whether the audience still had the stamina to continue the journey with them. Any single Bartók quartet, even an early one, easily consumes considerable cognitive energy. Maintaining that energy over more than three hours is no mean feat. Thus, in some respects, it was inevitable that the last two quartets in the set would run the risk of being short-changed, not by the performers but by the “listening minds” that had already been packed with more than is usually provided by a concert experience.
When the music deserves intense attention, more is not always better.