Along with fellow Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, composer Béla Bartók was one of the early leaders in the emerging field of ethnomusicology in the 20th century. Both of these composers wrote standard works in addition to their research into indigenous music of their native region, including in Bartók’s case six string quartets. The Takács String Quartet, founded at Budapest’s Liszt Academy in 1975, presented back-to-back performances in Richardson Auditorium last week of all six Bartók quartets, treating those who chose to attend both nights insight into the unique harmonies and musical complexities of this composer.
Friday night’s concert at Richardson featured Quartets No. 2, 4, and 6 (No. 1, 3 and 5 were performed the night before) to a sold-out house which seemed to have no trouble assimilating the intricacies of Bartók’s music. String Quartet No. 2, composed a decade after Bartók’s first quartet, came to be as Europe was immersed in World War I. Bartók captured the melancholy of the times in this quartet through its slow movements — the piece seems to be missing the usual final movement which might end on an upbeat note. Although Bartók did not quote any regional folksongs specifically in this quartet, the minor third interval prevalent in Hungarian folk tunes was a structural cell and theme of the piece.
Of the four original members of the Takács Quartet, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér continue to play with the ensemble, joined by first violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther. In Quartet No. 2’s opening movement, each player in the Takács seemed to be playing in their own individual world, yet came to rest periodically in rare moments of tranquility. This quartet had several waves of musical activity, perhaps reflecting the chaotic state of the world at the time. Amidst the shifting musical sections were gems of solo playing, including Mr. Dusinberre’s sweet violin melody against strummed cello, rich low viola passages from Ms. Walther and an elegant cello melody in the third movement.
Contrasting the melancholy nature of Quartet No. 2 was Quartet No. 4, with four quick movements split to bracket a mournful Lento. This quartet contained intense entrances and driving rhythms which were well handled by the Takács players. The musicians were uniform in their handling of the technical demands of the Bartók work, executing forceful bow strokes, double and triple stops and the “con sordino” (with mutes) effects of the second movement.
Bartók composed Quartet No. 6 on the edge of World War II, just before Bartók came permanently to the United States. Each of the four movements was preceded by a Mesto or motto, the first of which was a mournful tune played by Ms. Walther. Despite its desolate start, Quartet No. 4 becomes quite light through the first movement with teasing melodic lines and a very sweet ending to the first movement. Mr. Fejér effectively provided the Mesto to the second movement and the saucy rhythms and jazzy nature of the movement were contrasted with a dramatic second violin line played by Mr. Schranz. The Mestos grew in intensity with each movement, until all instruments were playing together for the third and fourth movements. The Mesto to the third movement may have been rich in texture, but the tuning effects called for by Bartók for the second violin made one’s hair stand on end. The Takács players also found a wide variety of vibrato effects in the closing movement.
The Takács String Quartet is not a regular visitor to Richardson Auditorium, but the musicians clearly feel at home in the space. Cellist Fejér claims that the Quartet loves Richardson’s “classic, amphitheater-like shape, coming all the way from ancient Greece, which has been the ideal acoustical layout” for the ensemble’s concerts. The sold-out house at Richardson would no doubt agree that the Takács String Quartet is welcome back anytime.