BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2; String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3; BARTOK: String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major; String Quartet No. 6 in D – Hungarian Quartet – Testament SBT2 1461 (2 CDs) 61:25, 56:63 [Distr. By Harmonia mundi] ****:
Testament restores to the active catalog two days of performances by the legendary Hungarian Quartet from the 1955 Edinburgh Festival, Freemasons’ Hall, July 6-7 programs that originally included the first Rasumovsky by Beethoven and the Bartok Fourth Quartet, but that tape (of Monday, September 5) may have been lost. Two of the players–Zoltan Szekely, violin and Denes Koromzay, viola–had been coached by Bartok himself, and it was Szekely who gave the first performance of the Bartok Second Violin Concerto under Willem Mengelberg.
The July 6 concert opens with the 1806 E Minor Quartet of Beethoven, the second–and perhaps the most “symphonically” conceived–of his quartets for Count Rasumovsky, who had stipulated that Beethoven employ a Russian tune in his commissions. In the case of this opus, one Russian tune appears in the Scherzo (Allegretto), which uses a melody we know just as well from Moussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov. The last movement employs a Russian tune called “Slava.” The heart of the piece, however, lies in the second movement Molto adagio, an extended, unbroken meditation Czerny claims Beethoven composed after observing a starry night and musing on “the music of the spheres.” The ardent heavy brooding of the cello (Vilmos Palotai) sings most eloquently here, an influence some critics felt imposed too metronomic a discipline on the ensemble. The individual members of the quartet toss the Russian melody around in a rough canon as part of the trio section, then the jerky metrics of the da capo restate the sinewy muscularity in open fifths that Bartok himself would find appealing in many of Beethoven’s works by way of example. A rather galloping affair the last movement becomes, violinists Szekely and Alexandre Moskowsky in emotionally unified harmony throughout. By the last repeat of the unvaried Russian tune, the energy level has become quite unstoppable, and the coda’s rush takes us headlong into the audience applause.
The 1934 Bartok Fifth Quartet quite soon in the history of the Hungarian Quartet assumed calling-card status, their having co-opted the piece away from the Kolisch Quartet for the first Budapest performance. The first movement Allegro develops into a hothouse flower–maybe one from Dr. Rappaccini’s poisoned garden–given the onrush of short choppy melodies that outline a whole-tone scale whose order appears in reverse in the recapitulation. Slashing, angular, feverish, the first movement presents an emotionally tortured world in which even a sense of underlying rationale does not afford spiritual solace. Bartok’s Adagio molto gives us haunted night music in song form, dissonant, private, and forlorn. The Hungarian Quartet effects an inwardness–especially in the use of struck strings and slithering glissandi–eerie and disturbing. The fourth movement Andante, too, reprises the “night music” genre, equally unique in its drones, plucks, warbles, and idiosyncratic laments. Bartok designated the Scherzo as “in the Bulgarian style,” meaning that the metric units can be quite irregular, a village band seeming to warm up, even to argue among themselves. The impassioned movement exceeds the group’s commercial inscription from 1953, though the sound seems compressed. The frenetic Finale: Allegro vivace projects the same mania–here the buzzing of the Furies–we heard in the first movement, now touched by an impish humor in the middle section that soon cedes to the grueling momentum and pained espressivo of this music. A sudden intrusion of hurdy-gurdy sensibility perhaps lifts the burden of modernity, but the dizzying turbulence has the last word.
The July 7 concert reverses polarity, opening with the Bartok 1939 Sixth Quartet, whose four sadly slow (Mesto) movements create a dirge or Stabat Mater for the 20th Century. The very first sounds prove remarkable–rarely have strings–the viola of Denes Koromzay– sounded so much like a funereal horn! A melancholy lyricism pervades the entire work, literally a farewell to Europe in bittersweet colors. Sighs and nostalgic gestures alternate with sudden dazzling rushes of energy, what Dylan Thomas might have called the “windfall light.” Palotai’s cello sings gloomy songs in the midst of haunted echoes that die mid-sentence. The second Mesto proceeds to a wringing march in abbreviated canonic effects into which a somber melody intrudes and flies upward like a ghost from El Greco. Wails and strumming effects might kiss the Magyar tradition goodbye. Several times, the martial impulses seem to call you back to Beethoven’s Scherzo from Op. 127. Bartok’s predilection for “night music” finds a marvelous exponent in the Hungarian Quartet’s third Mesto, followed by an angry and sardonic Burletta in Bulgarian rhythms. The extended pizzicato section mixed with twittering figures almost aligns Bartok with Tchaikovsky, were not the melancholy so idiosyncratic. The final Mesto never relinquishes its mourning colors, the dominant affect closely akin to those last sad contrapuncti from J.S. Bach. The weeping figures intensify, making us speculate that if Jesus were correct in his assessment, “Forgive them, Father. . .” then the world continues to engage in a Greek tragedy from which there is no relief.
Beethoven’s 1806 C Major Quartet from his Op. 59 has endured as the most popular of the set, its energy and concentration of materials a testament to his economy of means that never loses its capacity for potent expressivity. The plastic imitations of the first movement, the extended pathos of the Andante, the traditionally gracious menuet, and the fugally fervent melos of the Allegro molto guarantee a richly satisfying musical experience. If one must have an “audition” piece from this concert, certainly the ardent meditative Andante qualifies as the signature for an ensemble whose primacy in their field of endeavor lasted for over forty years.
— Gary Lemco
The historic restorations show a renewed vitality.