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Too Much of a Good Thing? All six Bartok string quartets

I started listening to the Bartok string quartets when I was in college.  I liked them.  I really liked them.  And, as I’ve gotten older, my appreciation for them continues to develop.

So I was thrilled when I saw that Music at Menlo was going to do a concert program of all six of them in one day–starting at 10 a.m. and going into the afternoon, with breaks.  After consulting briefly with my “inner accountant” I ordered a ticket.

And I decided to take this a bit more seriously than I sometimes do.  So, I bought a study score for the quartets, and listened through some of my recordings while reading the score.  The score of a quartet is written, not surprisingly, on four staves–compared with what I think of as the usual two–like piano music.  So I found it a bit trickier to track along four lines all at once while I was listening.  On the other hand, I sing in a chorus, and the four vocal parts are often written on separate lines.  Hmmm.  If I had noticed that earlier, it might have helped.  Or maybe it means that when I’m singing I’m not paying enough attention to the other parts.  That could be a problem.

But there is a lot more going on in Bartok than in most choral writing–or at least any of the compositions that I’ve ever sung.  It did add another layer of intellectual processing to the experience of listening.  Even after all these years, I find that there are still things that I’m learning about these pieces; adding the visual representation of the music allows me to pick out things that I hadn’t noticed before.

On the day of the concert, I made a big thermos of coffee, took my score and headed off to the concert venue.  I hadn’t been before, so I left myself plenty of time.  Good thing; it took longer than I thought.  I settled in and the concert started.  The quartet [the Borromeo quartet] played the first two; then there was a brief break; then they played ##3 and 4.  Those were followed by a longer break for lunch.  The afternoon segment included the last two.  Each segment was roughly an hour and a half.

It was very reavealing to listen to them one after another.  It seemed that, with each new quartet, Bartok was asking himself to go farther into the music.  To develop more profound expression of what it all means.  Over lunch, I said to the people that I was sitting with that I hear the Bartok quartets as a kind of “even later Beethoven quartet”.  I hear them as pieces that come from a composer who has really internalized the late Beethoven quartets [some of the strangest music ever written] and then is looking for ways to go onward.  One of the things that I hear that ties them together in my mind is an almost architectural approach to the music.  That the composition must, first of all, fit together like a well-designed bridge.

I suppose that, of all of them, #5 is my favorite.  It’s full of the uneven rhythms of the Balkan dances that I’ve loved for a long time.  When it finished, I found that I had just run out of intellectual muscle.  I couldn’t muster the attention that #6 deserved.  But I was still delighted to have gone; and I’d do it again in a flash.  


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