András Schiff & Friends – Bartók (2)

String Quartet No.2
Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Tunes
Three Rondos on Slovak Folktunes
Out of Doors
String Quartet No.5

András Schiff (piano), Gábor Tákacs-Nagy & Zoltán Tuska (violins), Sándor Papp (viola) & Miklós Perényi (cello)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 June, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Béla BartókThe second instalment of the Southbank Centre’s mini-festival devoted to Bartók’s chamber output followed a not dissimilar pattern of piano music sandwiched between two of the string quartets.

András Schiff again impressed with his spontaneous playing of three contrasted collections written over a decade during which the composer moved – albeit gradually and not without effort – toward his mature idiom.

With a duration of little more than 10 minutes, the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (1918) can feel over-compressed, but Schiff elided between the ‘Four Old Tunes’ and ‘Nine Old Dance Tunes’ with the right balance of robustness and poise; rightly allowing himself room to characterise more thoroughly the central ‘Scherzo’ and ‘Ballade’, whose brief variations are as much a sequence of perspectives on the governing theme as an intensifying of mood around the tale that inspired it.

András SchiffThe Three Rondos on Slovak Folktunes (1916/27) are not often heard as a set; regrettably so, as the distinction between the disarming alternations of the first piece and the more through-composed contrasts of its successors is thrown into greater relief. Schiff handled all three with aplomb, and was no less convincing in the more structured contrasts of the suite Out of Doors (1926). Incisively though he dealt with the outer numbers, a carousing ‘With Drums and Pipes’ and a suitably breathless ‘The Chase’, it was in the central trio that the performance really left its mark. Thus an ominously evocative ‘Barcarolla’ moved into a suitably quizzical ‘Musette’ before ‘The Night’s Music’ impressed as the magical distillation of all that remains inimitable and enduring in Bartók’s creative maturity.

For its part, the so-called Mikrokosmos Quartet offered distinctive, often inspired accounts of the Second and Fifth Quartets. Having unwisely eschewed much of the expressive rhetoric in the First Quartet, the musicians entered into the spirit of its successor (1917) more completely. Impressive was the way they fused the already amorphous division between development and reprise in the disquieting Moderato, so that the movement unfolded with an unbroken momentum; and with the aggressiveness of the scherzo given a rhythmic lightness as to make the more plausible Kodály’s description of it as an explosion of joy. Nor was the introspective nature of the Lento underplayed, only that its resignation was rendered less tragic than fatalistic as the composer transcends his late-Romantic inhibitions.

Come the Fifth Quartet (1934) and such inhibitions have been left far behind in the stark but never sterile objectivity that this piece potently evinces. Good to hear the rhythmic conceits of the central scherzo ‘Alla bulgarese’ so deftly inflected, while the pathos of the Adagio was the keener when its expressive profile was so pointedly translated into the subtle mood-swings of the Andante. The outer movements were models of ensemble playing, for all that the approach of these musicians places the emphasis on synchronicity rather than synchronisation per se. Yet the opening Allegro was bracing in delivery, and the finale notable for the degree its alternating episodes were made to interlock on the way to those climactic unisons which herald the ironic distortion of the main theme and the decisive closing gestures. If that distortion is Bartók allowing himself a moment of overt subjectivity, then it was demonstrably all-of-a-piece within the context of this commanding and perceptive performance.

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