My beloved Chiara Quartet was back in town playing the Bartok quartets. Richard and I heard them play these same pieces last fall, and I had to go again. I have to hear them every time they're in town, it just doesn't get any better than them. For those of you who are new to the Chiaras, the cellist in the quartet was my first roommate when I moved to New York in 2002, and I quickly became good friends with all four of them. I've heard them perform probably about twenty times and can't get enough of them. I never get tired of saying this: they have the perfect balance of passion and precision, emotion and intellect. They are the apex of human achievement!
Another thing that makes them extraordinary: they perform from memory, highly unusual for a chamber music group. They started this when they recorded a Brahms quartet in 2014. Their second violinist, Hyeyung, thought memorizing one of the movements would give them a deeper insight into the music, and they had such a great experience they memorized the whole quartet, and the other two Brahms quartets. The next project they took on was memorizing all six Bartok quartets. Here's what their cellist Greg said:
"When we began working on memorizing the Bartok quartets, we found that Bartok's process worked in reverse almost magically. Many of the devilishly difficult passages in his music became natural when performed without printed music. Through the memorization process, we are able to return Bartok's music to the realm of the unrecorded folk music he so lovingly captured. We hope that by sharing our performances, Bartok's remarkable music continues its journey from ear to ear and generation to generation just as the folk music that inspired it."
I think if we did the Pepsi challenge between them playing the Bartok quartets a few years ago with the score and them playing it now without, you'd be able to hear the difference. It's a different sense of ownership when you memorize something - - it's coming out of your brain and your body, and not from the page.
The two concerts had the same format as the concerts they played last fall: 1, 3, and 5 on the first concert, and 2, 4, and 6 on the second. There were moments of #3 that sounded familiar, but the rest all sounded new. Bartok always holds together, always makes sense, but is never predictable. The way he ends a phrase is fascinating - - it never quite goes where you think it will, but on its own terms it seems inevitable.
The Chiaras play this music with tenderness, ferocity, transcendence, and an eternal searching. They also make the music as exciting as an action movie, and you know how I love action movies.
The second concert was just as thrilling. #4 is my favorite by far, it always turns my crank in a very big way. #6 gave me such a fascinating journey this time: it started with a prayer, and worked its way through frustration, wry humor, indecision, and that elusive searching quality. The last few seconds feature a white, stunning vision of heaven which fades and is replaced by a resigned but still peaceful acceptance of death. All of that the last ten seconds of the piece.
These concerts were partly to celebrate the Chiaras releasing their 2-CD set of the Bartok quartets. I can't wait to get my copy.