Béla (Victor János) Bartók

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Nationality: Hungarian
Born: March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died: September 26, 1945, New York City, NY (age 64)
wikipedia

String Quartet No. 4, BB 95 Sz. 91

(for 2 violins, viola and cello)
I. Allegro
II. Prestissimo con sordino
III. Non troppo lento
IV. Allegretto pizzicato
V. Allegro molto
Composed: 1928, July through September. (age 46-47)
First performance: February 22, 1929. London radio broadcast by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet
Published: 1929 (age 47-48)
Dedication: To the Pro Arte Quartet (Quatuor Pro Arte)
Duration: 23 minutes (approximately)
8 recordings, 28 videos
5:54
Takács Quartet
I. Allegro
3:01
Takács Quartet
II. Prestissimo con sordino
5:28
Takács Quartet
III. Non troppo lento
2:56
Takács Quartet
IV. Allegretto pizzicato
5:41
Takács Quartet
V. Allegro molto
6:00
Alban Berg Quartet
I. Allegro
2:51
Alban Berg Quartet
II. Prestissimo con sordino
5:21
Alban Berg Quartet
III. Non troppo lento
2:55
Alban Berg Quartet
IV. Allegretto pizzicato
5:35
Alban Berg Quartet
V. Allegro molto
5:39
Emerson String Quartet
I. Allegro
2:48
Emerson String Quartet
II. Prestissimo con sordino
5:13
Emerson String Quartet
III. Non troppo lento
2:41
Emerson String Quartet
IV. Allegretto pizzicato
5:06
Emerson String Quartet
V. Allegro molto
6:16
Hagen Quartet
I. Allegro
2:49
Hagen Quartet
II. Prestissimo con sordino
5:47
Hagen Quartet
III. Non troppo lento
2:44
Hagen Quartet
IV. Allegretto pizzicato
5:35
Hagen Quartet
V. Allegro molto
23:13
Hungarian String Quartet (complete)
9:00
Novák Quartet
Part 1 of 3
8:34
Novák Quartet
Part 2 of 3
5:48
Novák Quartet
Part 3 of 3
27:06
Quatuor Ebène
9:20
Vermeer Quartet
Part 1 of 3
8:02
Vermeer Quartet
Part 2 of 3
5:44
Vermeer Quartet
Part 3 of 3

From Kai Christiansen:

Belá Bartók (1881-1945)

String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91, 1928

Belá BartókIn a manner often compared to Beethoven, the string quartet was absolutely central to the creative lifeblood of Béla Bartók. After an early quartet written at the age of seventeen, Bartók produced a monumental cycle of six mature quartets over a span of thirty years. Plans for a seventh quartet remained unfulfilled by his death in 1945. Uniquely among 20th century works, Bartók’s quartets have become essential to the repertoire defining an important chapter in the history of this indefatigable genre of musical thought and expression. Of the six quartets, each a distinctly individual milestone in Bartók’s evolutionary journey, the fourth is the most celebrated. The Bartók scholar Halsey Stevens wrote, “The fourth quartet comes close to being, if it does not actually represent, Bartók’s greatest and most profound achievement.”

Written between July and September of 1928, Bartók’s fourth quartet is a tour de force of sound, expression, technical innovation and formal construction. Despite the fact that Bartók was not a string player (or, perhaps, because of this), the string quartet is deployed with a battery of fresh sonic effects. It simply sounds completely different that any string quartet before it. The music prominently features sliding notes (glissando), glassy tones by bowing close to the bridge (ponticello), mutes (con sordino) plucking, strumming and slapping (pizzicato), and even striking the strings with the wood of the bow (col legno). These coloristic effects are equally matched by the novel musical content, the actual notes being played. Bartók’s musical lines undulate chromatically in a narrow compass exhaustively exploring the nuances of tiny intervals. The music is dominated by motives rather than melodies and a dense contrapuntal style of imitation and linear writing pursues these motives with obsessive, multi-threaded textures. In the outer movements in particular, Bartók celebrates harsh dissonance unabashedly. Combined with an equally powerful and disruptive rhythmic thrust, the music, definitive and occasionally violent, has a nearly overwhelming impact. This is the sonic surface of music. Beneath lies a meticulous and equally novel formal design.

Bartók’s fourth quartet is constructed using a perfectly symmetrical “arch” or “bridge” form. Its five movements comprise two sets of matching movements with the central slow movement serving as the keystone, itself a three-part form containing the dead center of the quartet. Unusually, Bartók described his own music:

“The work is in five movements; their character corresponds to Classical sonata form. The slow movement is the kernel of the work; the other movements are, as it were, arranged in layers around it. Movement IV is a free variation of II, and I and V have the same thematic material; that is, around the kernel (Movement III), metaphorically speaking, I and V are the outer, II and IV the inner layers.”

The outer movements describe a kind of bristling husk around the kernel, both movements dominated by strong dynamics, muscular rhythms and an omnipresent six-note motive subjected to numerous “classical” transformations. Curiously, the motive itself is an arch with three notes rising and three notes falling. The next layer of pairs (movements II and IV) comprises two brilliant scherzi, animated but somehow softer than the outer husk. The second movement is like muted, quicksilver Mendelssohn, if he were from outer space. The fourth movement is famously obsessed with pizzicato as if evoking a rough but meticulously coordinated band of folk guitarists. The central third movement, the kernel, is, by contrast, serene, lyrical and lonely, a nocturne suspended in an impressionistic haze punctuated by rustling and chirping, the distinctive sounds of Bartók’s “night music.”

Repeated hearings of the fourth quartet promise the listener a similar layered experience, the powerful, colorful surface yielding to inner layers of contrapuntal logic, symmetry and formal elegance. Despite its undeniable 20th century modernism, Bartók’s music eventually reveals an exquisite classicism.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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