András Schiff & Friends – Bartók (3)

String Quartet No.3
Mikrokosmos – Book VI: Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm
Piano Sonata
String Quartet No.6

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 June, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The final recital in this series devoted to Bartók’s chamber music followed a similar format of piano works framed by two of the string quartets. And, given that these were the Third and Sixth of the series, the contrast on all levels was heard at its most acute. Certainly the Third Quartet (1927) is Bartók at his most radical and uncompromising: its 15-minute span at once a single movement whose three – possibly four – main sub-divisions can correspond either to a compressed Classical structure or to an expanded sonata entity, depending on where the formal and expressive emphasis is placed.

It was to the credit of the specially formed Mikrokosmos Quartet that the musicians’ performance steered a fine line between these possibilities, without at all lacking focus or conviction as an interpretation. Thus the simmering intensity of the ‘Prima parte’ prepared the ground – without seeming introductory – for the lengthier and intensely argued ‘Seconda parte’, here dispatched with a driving but never headlong momentum whose necessary resolution was the ‘Ricapitulazione della prima parte’; less a truncated reprise than an inward distillation of the work’s motivic nexus, thus leaving the ‘Coda’ to drive home the accrued energy with a resolve the more impressive for eschewing easy aggression. Disciplined in manner yet spontaneous in delivery, this account reaffirmed the work’s claims to being Bartók’s masterpiece.

A highlight of these recitals has been András Schiff’s rendition of a selection from Bartók’s piano output. So it was here – beginning with Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm that are the culmination of the sixth and final book of Mikrokosmos (1939), a piano directory like no other. Too often wrestled to the ground by not-so-advanced students, it was a pleasure to hear the dances given with such verve – Schiff pointing up differences in rhythmic emphasis while ensuring they ran together as a sequence. Likewise the Suite (1916) that is a crucial link in the decade witnessing Bartók’s voyage of discovery: accelerating from a quizzical ‘Allegretto’, through a capering ‘Scherzo’, to a motoric Allegro – before a ‘Sostenuto’ sets the preceding movements at a distance borne more of resignation than tranquillity.

Schiff propelled the work’s expressive trajectory with some mastery, and had enough in reserve for a scintillating account of the Sonata (1926) in which Bartók sets out the singular premises of his mature piano-writing. Maybe the central slow movement could have evinced even greater pathos beneath its monochrome sombreness, but the allegros either side were done with a judicious mix of the commanding and capricious – Schiff powering through the hair-raising final pages with irresistible virtuosity. A virtuosity the more impressive for being placed so evidently at the service of the music.

If the Sonata marks the eruptive beginning of Bartók’s most sustained phase of creativity, the Sixth Quartet (1939) marks its ambivalent end. With its four-movement form and air of restraint, this has been seen as a regression on the composer’s part – yet, as the players eloquently confirmed in this performance, there is nothing tentative or backward-looking about the music. How subtly they shaped the ‘Mesto’ theme prefacing each of the first three movements – a fervent yet distracted ‘Vivace’, a sardonic yet evidently pained ‘Marcia’, and a robust yet hollow ‘Burletta’ – before any pretence falls away in a finale where the ‘Mesto’ theme takes over in the most searching and vulnerable music that Bartók wrote.

That the composer never lived beyond sketching its successor is a great pity, but the Sixth Quartet breathes a (not so?) curious air of finality that makes it a fitting end to a masterly cycle; and, when rendered with such inwardly attuned conviction as here, the rightful close to a life-enhancing series.

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