The half-dozen string quartets B_la Bart‹k composed over a period of 30 years have become a 20th century musical touchstone, just as Beethoven's series of quartets written between 1798 and 1826 is considered the summit of 19th-century chamber music.
So it's no surprise that the venerable Takšcs Quartet: an ensemble with much experience performing the works of both composers: is performing the Bart‹k quartet cycle at the new Alice Tully Hall in three concerts (March 14, 18, and 21), each of which includes an early Beethoven quartet.
"We were looking to put Bart‹k in a slightly different context," explains Takšcs violinist Edward Dusinberre. "The six quartets that comprise his Opus 18 were the beginning of Beethoven's own amazing run of quartets, so we thought it would be a nice sorbet for the audience to hear them alongside the Bart‹k works."
Cellist Andršs Fej_r, one of two remaining Hungarian members of the quartet since its formation in 1975 (along with violinist Kšroly Schranz), concurs. "In the last 20 years, we've been pairing various Beethoven quartets with Bart‹k's, and somehow it works," he says. "I cannot quite say why, but it probably has something to do with the utter seriousness and intensity of both composers. Bart‹k paired with someone like Mozart probably wouldn't work for us because there's something utterly different in their musical thinking."
Although his quartets are considered masterpieces in the genre, there is a nagging feeling to overcome that Bart‹k is too difficult for audiences. But both Takšcs musicians disregard that theory.
"These are not abstract, dry pieces of music: they have humor and warmth and color, and we love to play them with total abandon," Dusinberre says. "The strange textures that he uses come from his frequent trips to the countryside searching for folk idioms, so emphasizing the humanity in the music is always important. Once, when we played the fourth quartet, local musicians stood up in between movements and played traditional folk instruments to show where and how Bart‹k came up with his weird ideas. That's especially true in the fourth movement, which has the eerie, spooky sound of the famous Bart‹k pizzicato, where the musician pulls the strings up so they snap against the fingerboards throughout the entire movement."
For his part, Fej_r sees the three decades covering Bart‹k's composition of his quartets as an important indication of their musical integrity. "Each quartet is from a different period in his life, so they don't resemble each other at all," he says. "There's no family tree connecting them: they are each wonderfully unique and different. In Beethoven's Opus 18 quartets, we can see and hear the seeds of his later quartets, but there are no such seeds in the Bart‹k quartets, apart from the fact that his last quartet turns back toward classical forms: just as Beethoven's last (Op. 135) did."
Since the quartet's Hungarian members have Bart‹k in their very blood, it would seem obvious that performing his music should be second nature to them. But Fej_r explains that it's more complicated than that. "When Ed Dusinberre joined us 16 years ago _at that time there were three Hungarians in the group: we immediately started working on Bart‹k's quartets and tried to answer his questions as best we could. We enjoyed this exchange because Ed was trying to clarify things that we never had to think about because it came to us as the 'mother tongue,' so to speak. But this give-and-take was also good for us, letting us re-learn these pieces and take another look at the phrasings and balances and structures.
"Although some people feel that Bart‹k's music is very abstract and alien, the classical spine and structure of every movement is there, just like in works by Brahms and Beethoven," the cellist insists. "What also makes him foreign-sounding to some is the different chord makeup. All this is why we still find so much to work on after having played these works for so long. What makes Bart‹k's music so fascinating is that we can always try something different, because we know it can be performed in more persuasive ways."
Dusinberre says simply, "The Hungarian connection with Bart‹k is as strong as ever."
The Takšcs connection to Alice Tully Hall: a space the quartet has played several times over the years: is also strong, as both members can attest to. The Hall has always been a unique place to perform for Fej_r, who says, "It's an honor for us and we're very excited about playing there right after the re-opening.
Dusinberre remembers a "special" Tully moment of his own: "I've always said that our audiences have been memorable in that hall: once, while playing the Bart‹k cycle, we were finishing the very intense third quartet, which has a manic, explosive last page. As our last chord ended, a woman screamed as if she was at a horror movie. For me, that's the perfect reaction to hearing that piece, and it's definitely not your usual classical music audience response!"
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Kevin Filipski writes frequently about the arts.