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