String Quartet No.4
Rumanian Folk Dances
Hungarian folk-songs and dances
Takács Quartet [Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola) & András Fejér (cello)
Reviewed by: Rob Witts
Reviewed: 14 January, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
While he is recognised as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, Bela Bartók’s pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist is too rarely acknowledged. Electrified by the experience of hearing peasant songs in the Hungarian resort town of Gerlicepuszta in 1904, Bartók became acquainted the following year with Zoltán Kodály, who introduced him to new methods of phonographically recording sound.
In the years that followed, until the First World War redrew the political map, Bartók toured the countryside of what is now Romania, Slovakia and the Balkan states, recording for posterity genuine folk music in all its strange beauty. You can still hear the voices that sang for the young composer and his strange machine. The wax-cylinder technology was rudimentary, but the angular melodies carry through the hiss and crackle.
The audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall listened in silence as a thin voice drifted across the years, its song then taken up by the musicians on the platform. It was a wonderful piece of musical theatre that instantly connected the concert to a living tradition.
The Takács Quartet first collaborated with the Hungarian folk group Muzsikás at the Aspen Music Festival in 2001, at the suggestion of musicologist Joseph Horowitz. He wondered whether the folk influences in Bartók’s music – even in such abstract masterpieces as the Fourth String Quartet – could be made plain by presenting it alongside its models. The experiment was a success, and led to an American tour; by the time it reached London, this project was a brilliantly realised evening of musical reinvention that altered one’s view of Bartók without diminishing either his music or the folk traditions that nourished it.
Much of this was down to the performers. If there is a better string quartet than the Takács to hear in Bartók, I would love to know. The musicians’ commitment in the Fourth Quartet was total, with a sense of risk-taking in the unbridled contrasts between furious rhythm and sublime stillness.The members of Muzsikás were also virtuosi in their tradition, ripping through fiendishly complicated dance metres with astounding ease.
But what lifted the concert out of the ordinary was the juxtaposition of the two, and the audible mutual respect of the musicians for one another. It is one thing to read that the sound of Bartók’s pizzicato is a recreation of the gardon, a three-stringed Hungarian percussion instrument that looks like a rustic cello, but quite another to hear with your own ears how a great composer takes such and makes it his own.
The concert also gave some idea of what so excited Bartók in the musical traditions of Eastern Europe. The singer Marta Sebestyén’s richly ornamented rendition of a Moldavian ballad, accompanied by a buzzing long-flute (into which the player sings as well as blows, producing pungent resonance) was extraordinary. The finale, in which both groups joined in a barnstorming rendition of the Rumanian Folk Dances, was as pure an expression of musical pleasure as one could hope to hear.