MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Opening the Door into Bartók


Hearing a super-charged performance of Béla Bartók’s Third String Quartet by the Ehnes Quartet on Sunday – a condensed cosmos of formal and tonal experimentation – reminded me of why this composer’s quartets are genuinely comparable to what Beethoven achieved with the medium.

By happy coincidence, my friend Philip Kennicott, one of the most brilliant critics writing today, had just been immersed in the entire Bartók cycle on the other coast, back in my old hometown. The performers were the Takács Quartet. (I’d heard their two-evening Bartók cycle in D.C. back in the ’90s.)

In his reflections on the experience, Kennicott makes a very important point about the much-misunderstood presence of “folk elements” in Bartók’s music: “The turn to folk music was not, for Bartók, nostalgic, but rather a way forward. What he found there wasn’t simplicity, but density, and in that density was a modernity as vital as anything hatched in the musical systems of Paris and Vienna.”

And on Bartók’s sense of an ending:

So the music is always anxious, always driving forward, which is both exhausting and exhilarating, and perhaps that’s why Bartók’s endings—ironically anticlimactic, humorously flippant, pompously emphatic—are so appealing. By the time Bartók ends something, no honest listener could claim to want to hear more. The idea, the gesture, the mood has been wrung out, used up, finished off. And then it’s on to the next thing, with renewed energy and relentlessness.

Kennicott then works George Steiner’s interpretation of the door metaphor in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle into his discussion:

We open successive doors in Bluebeard’s castle because “they are there,” because each leads to the next by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind’s own awareness of being. To leave one door closed would be not only cowardice but a betrayal—radical, self-mutilating—of the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species.

This was Steiner’s best hope for hope, after the brutality of World War I, the obscenity of Hitler, ages of anti-Semitism, and the terrors of the post-war age, especially its predation on what was once called, without embarrassment, Culture. It is also a perfect description of the powerful, dutiful, heroic denial of self in Bartók’s string quartets, which also proceed by a logic of intensification, and which leave the listener grasping at “the mind’s awareness of being.”

Filed under: aesthetics, Bartók, chamber music, James Ehnes, music writers, string quartet

Warming Up with Chamber Music

l to r: James Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard O’Neill, and Robert deMaine; Photo by Jerry Davis

l to r: James Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard O’Neill, and Robert deMaine; Photo by Jerry Davis

As if the Super Bowl victory weren’t enough, yesterday chamber music-loving Seattleites were treated to a spectacularly satisfying program to conclude the brief Winter Festival of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. James Ehnes and his quartet of fellow SCMS regulars (violinist Amy Schwarz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine) played a knock-out recital of Beethoven, Bartók, Josef Suk, and Ravel.

And then they’re off on their first-ever tour of Europe — with stops in Birmingham, Oxford, London, Tilburg, and Paris. Not to miss, I’d say: above all, their explosive but many-faceted Bartók.

Here’s a shorter version of my recent interview with violinist and SCMS artistic director James Ehnes for in connection with his latest Seattle visit:

James Ehnes became the artistic director of SCMS two seasons ago. In his “off” time from Seattle, the native Canadian is a prized soloist and chamber musician in demand around the globe.

This fall, for instance, took him to Melbourne, Moscow and Glasgow. And just a few weeks ago, when his duo partner became ill right before a recital in London’s Wigmore Hall, Ehnes saved the day stepping up to perform two of the monumentally challenging Bach solo partitas.

Ehnes feels a strong sense of loyalty to Seattle and has been involved with SCMS as a performer since he was still a teenager. Yet while the long-running festival is part of his blood, he’s been artfully introducing some subtle changes.

For anyone who relishes the amazing craft, interpretive spontaneity and emotional directness that give the chamber music medium such power, it’s good to see Ehnes bringing a new focus to the string quartet.

His own quartet is taking the stage for Béla Bartók’s First and Third Quartets and Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, Op. 74, as well as the Ravel Quartet in F and Josef Suk’s Meditation on the old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas.”

The Bartók quartets represent Ehnes’s ongoing advocacy for the Hungarian composer. Ehnes has already made splendid recordings of Bartók’s concertos and solo works for violin, and he launched his first full season two years ago with a program that included a breath-taking performance of the pioneering Fourth String Quartet.

“We’ve been doing a bit of focus on Bartók for the last few festivals. His is one of the greatest and most unique musical voices of the 20th century, and it bothers me that despite his name having great recognition among music lovers, a very great majority of his music remains unknown to the general public.”

As usual, Ehnes’s programming ideas encourage intriguing cross-connections and discoveries to be made. The Jan. 31 concert, for example, offers music by Bartók’s compatriot Zoltán Kodály. “I think it will be fascinating for our audiences to compare the Kodály [Serenade for Two Violins and Viola] to the Bartók String Quartets.”

And Ehnes has no qualms about programming one of the best-loved warhorses in all chamber music for opening night: Dvořák’s Op. 77 Quintet for Strings. After all, his birthday (January 27) falls in the middle of the festival. “I have to admit this quintet is one of my very favorite things in the world, particularly the unbelievably beautiful third movement. So I programmed this as a bit of a present to myself.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: chamber music

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