Portland String Quartet Shines in Bartok

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 2, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

As played Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church by the Portland String Quartet, the early Bartok String Quartet No. 1, Opus 7 (1909), was a perfect introduction to that composer’s chamber works—easy to follow, atmospheric, profound and even humorous.

The quartet, with new cellist Andrew Mark, sounded like it must have 50 years ago when it was pioneering the work of American composers such as Walter Piston.

The PSQ sometimes has trouble jumping into the pool, for want of a better simile—easing into the music rather than proclaiming a bold beginning.

That was certainly not the case with the Bartok, which opens with an ethereal violin canon that presents the germ of almost everything that is to come. The minor sixths and seconds are not only pure Bartok, but lend themselves to incredible transformations.

Transformations, that, like Beethoven’s, seem inevitable once they have sounded, beginning as a song of the dawn and ending with raucous fun in a schoolyard. One can hear the taunting children running away as the headmaster’s steps approach. The section is billed as an Hungarian folk dance but it seems a little more like “the rat gets the cheese” or one of the incomprehensibly droll folksongs at the end of “Mikrokosmos.”

This section is in stark corniest to the Romanic intensity of the first movement and the elegance of the allegretto. One critic has called the opening Lento a “projection of the horrors of existence”—it marks a suicidal moment caused by an unfortunate love affair— but that seems as inaudible to a modern ear as the terrors of the Verdi “Requiem.”

The program to me seems like a day at school, beginning with a walk to the schoolhouse through woods and fields, a lesson in fugue while ogling a pretty girl,  and recess; or an illustration of Paul Klee’s theory of the connection between art and music. One is supposed to hear Wagner, Max Reger and Richard Strauss in it, not to mention Debussy, but it is the first of his work to be all Bartok, through and through.

It was followed by the Mozart String Quartet in A Major (K.464), which spotlighted cellist Mark in the drum-like passages that give the quartet its nickname.

After intermission came the great Brahms String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 51, No. 2, which also has a fine cello part. It was marred a little by a too-fast allegro in the Minuet, which made it sound like Mendelssohn in “A Midsummer Night;s Dream.” Like the Bartok, the Brahms quartet concentrates nodes of harmony, like the sun shining through clouds. They need to be emphasized somehow, perhaps with a resonance that exceeds what is available in a well-tempered piano chord. It should be possible with a string quartet, but I have never heard it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

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