Articles & Reviews

Marathon performance of Bartok's string quartets

Certain music never becomes easy. In fact, the formidability of Bela Bartok's six string quartets increases over time, especially when heard in the marathon concert by the Borromeo String Quartet Sunday at the Curtis Institute.

Though not the first Bartok marathon in my experience, it was the most intense, performed at a high standard that brought you so deeply into the music's inner workings that you wondered if your brain could take it all in.

Spanning the period from 1908 when the composer was 27 to the eve of World War II in 1939, Bartok's quartets ask to be performed in a single concert not just because they represent one of the highest peaks in 20th-century music, but because there's an easily traceable progression.

The first quartet shows the composer emerging from the received language of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy with a more gruff musical voice marked by frenetic, barbaric bachannals. That and other tropes are transformed in an ever more personal manner in each piece, reaching an apex of strangeness with String Quartet No. 5 with peasant songs that somehow feel both woozy and modern.

The String Quartet No. 6 stands apart: Each movement begins with the same motif (like Brahms' Symphony No. 2), though Bartok's version of it feels like a repeated confrontation with inevitable, profound tragedy. Not only was Bartok forced to leave Hungary (whose folk music was his creative foundation) but he did so believing (erroneously) that he'd never again compose after emigrating to the United States. No harmonic resolution anywhere is so apprehensively eloquent as the end of the sixth.

Compared to the Emerson Quartet's famous Bartok marathons at Carnegie Hall in the 1990s (one of which I attended), Borromeo's at Field Concert Hall had musicians, music, and audience contained in a smaller room that, over the three-hour-plus concert, became laudably claustrophobic: The performances never coasted or let you coast.

While the 1990s version of the Emerson Quartet used vibrato so unceasingly as to form a safety curtain between your ears and the music's intensity, the Borromeo Quartet is much more judicious about such matters, giving performances with more nuanced contrasts of light and shade, as well as more open windows that your ear can't help but enter. The music's mystery, violence, and sorrow become absolutely inescapable.

The physical demands of the marathon - sequencing two quartets at a time separated by two intermissions - meant that the second quartet in each part had moments when the Borromeo players didn't achieve what they were after. That's going to happen under such circumstances, and it made you appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking and the numerous transcendent moments.

Besides enjoying Borromeo's blended sheen of sound (similar to the now-defunct Quartet Italiano), I loved the lushness of the cello and viola playing in the first quartet's opening movement, the terrifying virtuosity of the fourth quartet's scherzo, and the haunting, "night music" adagio of the fifth quartet.

Might Borromeo/Bartok recordings be in the offing?