The Borromeo Quartet walked into Jordan Hall Wednesday night and gave what was easily the most profound and intellectually engaging experience I have had this concert season. The program was simply all six of the string quartets of Bela Bartòk, complete in one evening, three and one-half hours of passionate and challenging music, a gamut of romanticism, violence and ultimately despair.
The Borromeos (Nicholas Kitchen, and Kristopher Tong, violins; Mai Motobuchi, viola and Yeesun Kim) have a formidable architectural sense— their immaculately well-structured First Monday performance of the big Schubert C Major String Quartet with Larry Lesser is another high point from this year. They produce a lean and muscular sound, with a consistent but varied palette of timbres. Their sound is more edge than cushion, but never becomes needlessly sharp or bright. The core of their playing is fiercely emotional, but they keep that impulse under close rein and remain able to cogently articulate the large-scale elements of the work. This performance was a cathedral warmly lit from within by an intense fire. Of course, this being Bartòk, the cathedral’s style at times was more Gaudí than Gothic, and by the end it was a heart-breaking ruin.
In more traditional two-concert cycles the quartets are typically presented in even-number and odd-number groups, in chronological order. While this preserves the sense of evolution that is so powerful in them, the extent of the development between, say, the first and third is really too great to comprehend without hearing what the composer had been up to in the second. Heard in three groups of two, the foursome presented a corpus of work that moves by a kind of punctuated equilibrium from the just-barely conventional at the start to a voice and personality so individual and uncompromising that the pieces have an intimidating reputation.
When heard in a typical cycle it is easy to hear both of the opening quartets as “early” works, but they were written nine years apart from each other – the First when the composer was a young 27, the second at 36. From the very first pair of descending, swooning intervals, the First was invested with longing and expression. That melancholy opening marks the beginning of a journey which reaches its apex in the final movement, breaking out in a full-throated statement of folk song over feverishly shimmering accompaniment. The Quartet beautifully evoked these moments of youthful passion constrained, a tightly controlled eroticism that threatened to ravish but never overstepped its bounds. The Second is an essay in almost obsessively controlled counterpoint and counterpoint-like strategies for controlling musical material. No interval can be sounded without being constantly re-sounded and re-located; this is extended almost to comic effect in the rustic dance of the second movement, where the first melody is a minor third D-F repeated eight times, over an ostinato D. The ensemble played the Second with special clarity; even in the increasing violence of the second movement the composer’s tight-fisted way with pitches was kept distinct, so that the mechanics of the music were not lost in the fury of the material. Indeed, this piece showed Bartòk at his most domineering, keeping barely tame material firmly under his thumb. The Second hints at the power latent in Bartòk, a steely personality marshaling immense strength.
The Third and Fourth heard together confirm this sense of growth and power. Written ten years later, and within one year of one another, together they form an essay in the exposition and formal control of musical motives almost Bacchic in their extremity. There appears in these two pieces moments of wild experimentation, uncompromising pursuit of untraditional material, and a variety of intensely physical joy in creation. The Third is Bartòk as a connoisseur of dissonance, slow wandering melodies that defy singing, “crunchy” small intervals in dances, clouds of passing runs, great powerful thwacks of clustered notes. Along with this exploration of dissonance is the deployment of extended techniques and unusual sounds, a menagerie of surprise and prickly texture. In the Borromeos’ hands the Third had a sense of joyous danger to it, a sense of suppressed violence, as if they were driving us just a little too fast for our comfort, while supremely confident of their own ability to keep the vehicle on the road. They were playing with us – very rough play indeed, but it remained play.
This sense of play and exuberance extended to the Fourth Quartet, but by this point Bartòk’s command of his material is more relaxed without becoming at all imprecise. If in the Third, we sensed the controlling a hugely powerful machine, in the Fourth we heard an improvising ensemble with a starkly uncanny knack for responding to one another’s impulses. The disjointed explosion that opens the quartet was “outside jazz” written out exactly (Babbitt’s All Set rang briefly in my mind as they started). The Fourth was the emotional high point of the evening—the sense of mastery that radiated from the notes and from their performers was simply exhilarating.
After the second intermission, the Fifth (written in 1934, six years after the Fourth) sounded almost classical after what had become before. This seems impossible; one of the more popular quartets to be played by itself, the Fifth is filled with rhythmic urgency and can seem almost breathless at times. But having arrived at the quartet through the path of the other four, it is possible to see how Bartòk has begun to streamline his techniques – the material is less ostentatiously dissonant, but punching well above its weight when necessary. Heard on a typical china-shop quartet program, the Fifth is usually a crazily disruptive bull. Heard among its siblings, it is a crowning refinement of technique and sensibility that still has a savage atavism at its heart.
The Sixth, written in 1939 under the shadow of the looming Second World War, breaks this sense of progression. Each movement begins with the marking “Mesto”, “sad”, and states and increasingly elaborate version of an alienated melody. After the supreme confidence and extroversion of the Fourth and Fifth, the Sixth seems to have lost its way. The opening movement works its way in a quasi-sonata form through material that can’t resolve itself. The furious pleasure of the fast movements in the previous quartets is replaced here by a parody march and a “Burletta.” The pleasure taken in dissonance has evaporated here; in the Sixth, dissonance is frequently sour or bitter. The second bar of the “Burletta” has eight repeated, harsh eighth-notes that evoke a nasty stomping rather than a vigorous dance. The degree to which the Sixth is isolated from its companion pieces was never so vivid as it was on this night. The last elaboration of the “Mesto” turns out to consume the whole of the fourth movement, an expression of grief that offers neither reassurance or catharsis. Paul Griffiths speaks of Bartok eviscerating the “hypocrisy of optimism” in the Sixth, and for once that did not seem like hyperbole. The quartet invested the Sixth with simply astonishing energy, given that they had been playing for three hours by the time they started. It was a devastating end to the evening.
The quartet never abandoned their characteristic sound to pursue the extremes of Bartòk’s genre-pushing, but they had no need to. One might have imagined any performance of a single, isolated quartet to be more idiosyncratic or ingenious. From this season’s bumper crop of Bartòk quartets, I think again of the Ebene Quartet’s Third, which was a kaleidoscope of color; or of the Chiara at their best, which could feel invented on the spot, and had more heavy metal sensibility. But this scaling of all six quartets, while keeping the composer’s voice in the foreground of all times, was the high point of a spring filled with Bartok Quartets. Three and a half hours after they started the crowd at Jordan Hall, the majority of whom made it all the way through this demanding evening, called the players back to the stage again and again, as if reluctant to leave the hall.