Rediscovering Bartok's Anxious, Hypnotic, Intellectually Exhausting Quartets

by Philip Kennicott | January 27, 2014

photo credit: Senticus/Shutterstock

There are occasional moments in Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 when the gloom lifts, when the densely woven musical lines pause momentarily for a spot of pure, consonant sunniness. In the string quartets of Beethoven or Brahms, these rare and radiant episodes would have a temporal and harmonic meaning, they would bring the argument to a conclusion, or summation, before moving on with a new idea. But in Bartók’s musical language, the effect is almost visual. They don’t suggest closure, or rest. Rather, it seems as if the music has been pierced, like sun through a canopy of trees, or the enlightenment of a restless mind finding something definite and tangible in its search for certitude. In a small, intimate way, they remind the listener of one of the most thrilling moments in all of twentieth-century music, the “fifth” door of “Bluebeard’s Castle,” Bartók’s sole opera. When opened by Bluebeard’s relentlessly inquisitive new wife, the tyrant’s majestic realms are represented in a gigantic, brilliant blast of orchestral sound, with the stage direction: “in a gleaming torrent, the light streams in." 

The first quartet was completed in 1909, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a brutal but still vaguely coherent project, when Hungary still held large swaths of Transylvania where Bartók would collect his beloved folk music, and before World War I would remake the map of Europe, geographically, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually. The usual narrative used to explain Bartók’s six monumental string quartets maps their evolution along two axes: the composer’s musical development and relation to the folk tradition, and his experience as a Hungarian during five of the most tumultuous decades in European history. The first quartet, arguably the composer’s first masterpiece, is a prelude to the other five, still connected to the nineteenth century, expressive but less rigorous than the later ones, and not yet fully representative of the peculiar tendency to formal order and motivic complexity that folk music inspired in the older composer. Even those moments of light and illumination are unique to the first quartet, and have no reprise in the more ferociously energetic, even brutal style of his later exercises in the form.

In January, the Takács String Quartet, one of the most respected ensembles performing today, brought complete cycles of the six Bartók quartets to New York’s Carnegie Hall, Washington’s Kennedy Center, and Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall. Played over two nights, the concerts in Washington were almost sold out, though a ferocious snow storm and bitter cold snap depressed attendance. Yet empty seats made for an even more intense artistic event, whittling an already self-selecting audience down to the most passionate and engaged. These works, a summit of the twentieth-century repertoire, are intellectually exhausting when heard individually; gathered together, they present a challenge to the listener that is almost overwhelming.

The Takács recorded these works twice before, most recently in the 1990s; the response then was admiration, mixed with the caveat that there was still room for their readings to grow and deepen. Today, they are completely at home in the music. Beyond the sheer technical challenge of performing the fiendishly difficult score, the major interpretative issues have to do with finding a workable balance between extremes: complexity and clarity, polyphonic austerity and folk-inflected high spirits. Without a trace of fussiness or ostentation, the Takács finesse the underlying challenge, remaining true to the abstraction of the music while referencing its worldly engagement with infectious rhythmic patterns, its occasional humor and even brief moments of Mahlerian irony (in the last movement of the fifth quartet). Even things that might at first seem a weakness to their approach are, after sustained listening, obvious virtues. Is the violin tone perhaps a bitter spidery and thin? Perhaps, but the resulting ensemble texture is the more unified and balanced for that. Is the viola just a tad wooly and woofy? Possibly, but its distinctive timbre makes it easier for the ear to find easily lost inner lines.

There is a bad habit of pretending that concert music needs the charisma of folk music to widen its appeal.

A note in the program book tells listeners that the Takács often collaborate artistically with the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás, “whose sense of adventure and joyful abandon has hopefully crept into our performances.” This is worrying. The influence of folk music, processed in Bartók at a level far deeper than quotation or pastiche, is everywhere present in these quartets, but there is a bad habit of pretending that concert music needs the charisma of folk music to widen its appeal. Bartók, and his Romanian counterpart George Enescu, turned to folk music for reasons quite different than, say, Vaughan Williams or Dvořák, who sought engaging, ready-made melodic material. The folk music of Eastern Europe was disruptive, dissonant, and dizzyingly complicated on the rhythmic level. The turn to folk music was not, for Bartók, nostalgic, but rather a way forward. What he found there wasn’t simplicity, but density, and in that density was a modernity as vital as anything hatched in the musical systems of Paris and Vienna.

Transylvanian folk style also foregrounded ornament in a way that breaks down the usual sense that ornament is something inessential but attractive pasted onto the deeper, structural substance of the music. In Bartók’s processing of folk music, these small turns and mordant-like figures become essential motivic material, and even the most alert listeners rely on their recurrence to find a way through the musical thickets.

So one wonders whether inspiration from an actual folk ensemble may well be misdirection, leading the interpreters to highlight a superficial sense of folksiness that Bartók never intended. Fortunately, whatever the Takács may have learned from Muzsikás, it hasn’t resulted in any simple-minded fetishization of the ostinato patterns, modal melodic figures, or the freely improvisational “hora lunga” style he occasionally used as a thematic template. Compared to another great Hungarian ensemble, the Végh Quartet (which produced an important Bartók cycle in the 1970s), the Takács keep rusticity at bay, acknowledging it but always within its appropriately processed and abstracted musical frame. Lesser Bartók performers, determined to make the music more engaging, make it more episodic, and everything that falls between the occasional episodes of fiddling, dancing, and perpetual motion breathlessness just sounds like filler. The Takács’ readings are more integrated and organic, with the focus on the music’s continual and frenetic development rather than its pure drama and atmosphere.

The more one listened, the more remote and odd Bartók’s aesthetic seemed. The musical voice, the stylistic fingerprint, was always recognizable over the course of almost four hours of music. But compare the Bartók quartets to the 15 quartets of Shostakovich, and one hears an almost desperately single minded consistency in the former. Shostakovich’s cycle is deeply personal, and often imbued with a profound sense of fear; Bartók’s is strangely depersonalized, and more focused on anxiety. Although fear can be based on a false sense of danger, anxiety is a more ungrounded emotion, free floating, detached from immediate causes or explanations. While fear can be dispelled, anxiety is ever present, lifting on occasion but always settling back in. Even at its most calm and reflective, as in the lento movement of the Fourth Quartet, one never senses any slackening of Bartók’s obsessional need to keep control of the music. His relation to his musical materials is like our relation to the world: One must keep a grip, and keep moving.

So the music is always anxious, always driving forward, which is both exhausting and exhilarating, and perhaps that’s why Bartók’s endings—ironically anticlimactic, humorously flippant, pompously emphatic—are so appealing. By the time Bartók ends something, no honest listener could claim to want to hear more. The idea, the gesture, the mood has been wrung out, used up, finished off. And then it’s on to the next thing, with renewed energy and relentlessness.

When the critic George Steiner published his T.S. Eliot Lectures (delivered in 1971 at Kent University), he chose a title from Bartók: “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture.” The opera inspired him because of the metaphor of the door, the obsessional need to keep opening them, even at our peril.

We open successive doors in Bluebeard’s castle because “they are there,” because each leads to the next by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind’s own awareness of being. To leave one door closed would be not only cowardice but a betrayal—radical, self-mutilating—of the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species.

This was Steiner’s best hope for hope, after the brutality of World War I, the obscenity of Hitler, ages of anti-Semitism, and the terrors of the post-war age, especially its predation on what was once called, without embarrassment, Culture. It is also a perfect description of the powerful, dutiful, heroic denial of self in Bartók’s string quartets, which also proceed by a logic of intensification, and which leave the listener grasping at “the mind’s awareness of being.” Leaving the second concert, I slipped into a taxi, the driver of which was playing something loud, pop, and auto-tuned on the radio. I didn’t recognize it, not just the artist or the song, or the purpose or the meaning, but the basic imprint of authentic human creativity. But it was engaging noise, and I drifted off into a dull submission to its repetitive energy. With a fleeting sense of sadness, “the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species” fled from the mind, replaced by something easier and emptier, neither serene nor focused, but hypnotically disengaged. After hours of Bartok, the very category “music” seemed incapable of stretching wide enough to encompass what the Takács do, and what the singer on the radio was doing.

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