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String Quartet No.4

Béla Bartók (b. 1881 - d. 1945)

Kelemann Quartet

Kelemann Quartet

Composer
Béla Bartók (b. 1881 - d. 1945)
Composition Year
1928
Work Movements
1. Allegro
2. Prestissimo, con sordino
3. Non troppo lento
4. Allegro pizzicato
5. Allegro molto
Artists
Kelemen Quartet (Barnabás Kelemen, Gábor Homoki [violins], Katalin Kokas [viola], Dóra Kokas [cello])

Programme Note Writer:
© Michael Dungan

1928 was the year that Bartók completed his first concert tour of America, little suspecting that, twelve years later, war would force him to return and live out his last days there, away from his beloved Hungary. After his death in 1945, some of the music of that final period in exile - for example, the Concerto for Orchestra, the Third Piano Concerto - was criticised for a perceived softening of style and demeanour, allegedly reflecting artistic principles compromised in the interests of earning a living. Commentators in agreement with this view are unimpressed by the popular renown of these much-loved works. Often the pieces most applauded are the least good, said Pierre Boulez in 1961, adding that the Concerto for Orchestra is far from being good.  He accused Bartók of smoothing down in his later works.

Among the un-softened, un-smoothed-down works to receive wholehearted critical approval are the Third and Fourth String Quartets of 1927 and 1928. Both reflect the experimentation, astringency and concentration, which characterised much of Bartók's work in the mid-1920s. They also represent a pinnacle within the thirty-one-year span of his output of string quartets, his six essays in the genre nowadays standing alongside those of Haydn and Beethoven as the greatest in the history of music. If Nos. 1 and 2 (1908, 1917) reveal him emerging from the influences of Impressionism and Late Romanticism, and 5 and 6 (1934, 1939) achieve a new directness, the two middle quartets find Bartók's synthesising of folk and art music influences at its most intense.

What Bartók describes as the kernel of the Fourth Quartet is the slow third movement. It is the centrepiece of a symmetrical, five-movement arch in which close correspondences make an outer layer of the first and fifth movements and an inner layer of the second and fourth. The kernel is a sublime solo, initially for cello, taken up by violin, accompanied by near motionless chords which are directed to drift in and out of vibrato. The serenely cool atmosphere is that of Bartók's special night music sound world, while the solo's ornaments and scales have clear folk music origins. As music for cello, the solo line resonates with the 1908 Solo Sonata of his friend and countryman, Zoltán Kodály.

The quartet's inner layer comprises the two scherzo movements (2 and 4) on either side of the kernel. The second movement Prestissimo is a whirring, buzzing, two-and-a-half-minute helter-skelter played with mutes throughout and based on short, chromatic scales, which sometimes melt into glissandi. It generates an irresistible energy which, interrupted by the third movement, is then resumed with a new face on the far side by the all-pizzicato fourth movement. What in the second movement were semi-tone scales are here broadened into the diatonic scale figure introduced by the viola. Between them, these two scherzos contain a number of sounds and techniques then new to the string quartet genre. These include the mutes, glissandi and sul ponticello (playing on the bridge) inspired by Berg's Lyric Suite (for string quartet) which Bartók heard in 1927. The fourth movement also introduces the 'Bartók pizzicato' in which the plucked string snaps back against the fingerboard.

The two movements (1 and 5) of the outer layer, finally, are the toughest: densely packed, rather severe, and based on tiny, interrelated motivic cells rather than themes. The first movement explores this motivic material with extensive contrapuntal treatment including canons, inversions, retrograde motion and so on. Then, arising from Bartók's concern for symmetry, the chromatic motives of the first movement return in the fifth, transformed into diatonic themes, echoing the similar relationship between movements two and four. Meanwhile the finale's primary effect, in contrast with the erudite procedures which produced it, is driving, visceral excitement.

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String Quartet No.4

Composer: Béla Bartók (b. 1881 - d. 1945)
Performance date: Friday 1st July 2016
Venue: Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,

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Composer Béla Bartók (b. 1881 - d. 1945)
Work Title String Quartet No.4
Composition Year 1928
Work Movements 1. Allegro
2. Prestissimo, con sordino
3. Non troppo lento
4. Allegro pizzicato
5. Allegro molto
Artist(s) Kelemen Quartet (Barnabás Kelemen, Gábor Homoki [violins], Katalin Kokas [viola], Dóra Kokas [cello])
Performance Date Friday 1st July 2016
Performance Venue Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,
Event Opening Concert
Duration 00:23:20
Recording Engineer Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category String Quartet
Instrumentation 2vn, va, vc
Programme Note Writer © Michael Dungan

1928 was the year that Bartók completed his first concert tour of America, little suspecting that, twelve years later, war would force him to return and live out his last days there, away from his beloved Hungary. After his death in 1945, some of the music of that final period in exile - for example, the Concerto for Orchestra, the Third Piano Concerto - was criticised for a perceived softening of style and demeanour, allegedly reflecting artistic principles compromised in the interests of earning a living. Commentators in agreement with this view are unimpressed by the popular renown of these much-loved works. Often the pieces most applauded are the least good, said Pierre Boulez in 1961, adding that the Concerto for Orchestra is far from being good.  He accused Bartók of smoothing down in his later works.

Among the un-softened, un-smoothed-down works to receive wholehearted critical approval are the Third and Fourth String Quartets of 1927 and 1928. Both reflect the experimentation, astringency and concentration, which characterised much of Bartók's work in the mid-1920s. They also represent a pinnacle within the thirty-one-year span of his output of string quartets, his six essays in the genre nowadays standing alongside those of Haydn and Beethoven as the greatest in the history of music. If Nos. 1 and 2 (1908, 1917) reveal him emerging from the influences of Impressionism and Late Romanticism, and 5 and 6 (1934, 1939) achieve a new directness, the two middle quartets find Bartók's synthesising of folk and art music influences at its most intense.

What Bartók describes as the kernel of the Fourth Quartet is the slow third movement. It is the centrepiece of a symmetrical, five-movement arch in which close correspondences make an outer layer of the first and fifth movements and an inner layer of the second and fourth. The kernel is a sublime solo, initially for cello, taken up by violin, accompanied by near motionless chords which are directed to drift in and out of vibrato. The serenely cool atmosphere is that of Bartók's special night music sound world, while the solo's ornaments and scales have clear folk music origins. As music for cello, the solo line resonates with the 1908 Solo Sonata of his friend and countryman, Zoltán Kodály.

The quartet's inner layer comprises the two scherzo movements (2 and 4) on either side of the kernel. The second movement Prestissimo is a whirring, buzzing, two-and-a-half-minute helter-skelter played with mutes throughout and based on short, chromatic scales, which sometimes melt into glissandi. It generates an irresistible energy which, interrupted by the third movement, is then resumed with a new face on the far side by the all-pizzicato fourth movement. What in the second movement were semi-tone scales are here broadened into the diatonic scale figure introduced by the viola. Between them, these two scherzos contain a number of sounds and techniques then new to the string quartet genre. These include the mutes, glissandi and sul ponticello (playing on the bridge) inspired by Berg's Lyric Suite (for string quartet) which Bartók heard in 1927. The fourth movement also introduces the 'Bartók pizzicato' in which the plucked string snaps back against the fingerboard.

The two movements (1 and 5) of the outer layer, finally, are the toughest: densely packed, rather severe, and based on tiny, interrelated motivic cells rather than themes. The first movement explores this motivic material with extensive contrapuntal treatment including canons, inversions, retrograde motion and so on. Then, arising from Bartók's concern for symmetry, the chromatic motives of the first movement return in the fifth, transformed into diatonic themes, echoing the similar relationship between movements two and four. Meanwhile the finale's primary effect, in contrast with the erudite procedures which produced it, is driving, visceral excitement.