Richard and I went to the second (and final) concert in the Chiara Quartet's Bartok cycle on 10/17/14. It was just as amazing as the first concert, they blow me away every time I hear them. I'll remind you that they're playing all the quartets from memory. This time I had my eye out to see how it changes their behavior in the performances - - I expected that being liberated from printed music would free them up to look at each other, but they didn't appear to be watching each other very much. I think they're been playing together so long, they don't NEED to look at each other. Do you need to look at the keyboard when you type? OK, maybe you do, maybe that's not such a good example, but it's something like that. They know the music so well, and the other three members so well, they don't need to watch each other.
Greg said in his introduction that this quartet had a Wagnerian quality, with suspended tonality and motives being woven through the texture. I could definitely hear that - - it also had the Wagnerian mixture of intellect and heart-on-sleeve emotion (and we're talking about Northern Europeans here, so that emotion only rarely is happiness). But all bets were off about halfway through. The noble Teutonic mood lifted, and Greg (the cellist) played a raucous repeating figure and Jonah (the violist) came in with a heavy, dancing figure. He played it with such force and depth, my eyes welled up with tears. They perfectly captured the Central European folk element - - I could feel my toes in the mud.
There were alternating duets a little later on, between Greg and Jonah and then between Becca and Hyeyung, the two violinists. It was always the two parts playing a tune in harmony - - the same rhythm but different pitches. In every freaking case (and there were three or four of these duets) the parts were perfectly matched. It was kinda mind-boggling, how perfectly matched they were. The piece ended with a big splash, a dizzying dance. It was thrilling. This is an early Bartok piece, Opus 7, written when Bartok was 28, and I wasn't expecting the music to be as fully-formed as the later quartets - - it was every bit as exciting and brilliant as the 4th quartet, my favorite.
This quartet was the least satisfying of the six. It was half as long as the first quartet - - 15 mins versus 30. It held my interest the whole time, and the Chiaras played it marvelously, of course, but it just didn't speak to me. The string writing was very inventive - - a lot of swooping and a few moments where there were different effects being used at the same time, that was wonderful to hear. And I'm not sure if it was in this quartet or one (or more) of the others, but every once in a while Bartok has the players doing more than one thing at a time, like playing with the bow and plucking the string at the same time. Here's how it works: place the middle finger of your left hand on the fingerboard to produce the pitch you want. Hold the bow with your right hand and draw it across the string. Now, with the index finger of your left hand, pluck one of the other strings. Rinse. Repeat.
Another stunner. So many colors, I couldn't believe the range of colors that just four instruments can make. I got the feeling that a string quartet is one of the forms where a composer can really show off.
This quartet had a few examples of what I call the Say You, Say Me Effect. You know that dreadful song by Lionel Richie, "Say You, Say Me?" Say it together. There's a moment about two-thirds of the way through the song where it abruptly changes tempo and mood, and then just as abruptly changes again. It's like you've turned the dial on the radio and are now tuned into a different station. Bartok loves to do that. Maybe that's where Lionel Richie got the idea? Doubtful. Greg had prepared us for a joke near the end of the piece, and it was a creepy use of the Say You, Say Me Effect - - they were going along, playing some wacko modern Hungarian business, and suddenly they were playing in a faux 18th century hoity toity style. It's like they were wearing heavy cotton work clothes, dancing around in a lather one moment, and then they were sitting wearing brocaded silk breeches and powdered wigs. I'm not sure if Bartok instructs the players to play it this way, but the Chiaras played this short section in a deliberately wonky and childlike manner, adding to the disturbance.
The ending was so frenzied and so outrageous, I had to pick up my teeth off the floor.