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Aspen Music Festival 2002

Bartok: Complete String Quartets, Emerson Quartet, Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado (HS)


Two or three minutes before the lights went down at Harris Hall in Aspen, Colo., a curious thing happened. The packed audience, which spilled onto the stage, stopped conversing and settled back in silence, waiting for the Emerson Quartet to emerge and begin a two-night traversal of all six of Bela Bartok's string quartets.

Even though there had been no signal, no dimming of the lights, no closing of the doors, this Aspen Music Festival audience was simply ready for something special. They knew, because the Emerson Quartet spends its summers in residence here, that these musicians are uniquely suited to Bartok's colorful, rhythmic, challenging music. The Emersons are famous for their technical proficiency and unanimity of interpretation, but they also can delve deep and find the music's soul.

For these performances, they broke from string quartet tradition and stood like soloists (all except cellist David Finckel, of course). If the idea was to free up the music, it worked. This quartet has performed Bartok often, including several occasions on which they played all six in one marathon evening. They won two Grammys for their 1989 recording of the set, including Best Classical Album. As one would hope, their clarity of interpretation has only improved. This was searing music making.

It's hardly fair to single out musicians when the whole was so much more than the sum of its parts, but violist Lawrence Dutton deserves special mention for his exquisite playing. Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker alternated taking the lead, and cellist Finckel provided his usual effortless contributions that always seemed to carve out the right balances.

Bartok requires these musicians to produce an amazingly diverse range of sounds. At various times the score asks them to make eerie noises by bowing next to the bridge (sul ponticello), by tapping the strings with their bows (col legno), to play without vibrato and at other times with extra schmaltz like gypsy fiddlers, to snap strings hard while playing pizzicato and elsewhere pluck so gently the quartet sounds like a giant lute. The finale of the sixth quartet finds the first violin whistling a nervous tune with high harmonics against agonizingly heartbreaking harmonies. At another point, the violist strums like a guitar.

For all that sonic color, the quartets are built on exquisitely detailed musical architecture. They develop, often strictly, according to the same sort of musical building blocks that Bach and Beethoven used. Ultimately, though, the key to the music lies in Bartok's rhythmic and harmonic palette. Here the Emersons' technical mastery made it easier to hear just what Bartok was up to.

In the early quartets, where tempos shift constantly, these musicians were breathing as one. In the later pieces, Eastern European dance rhythms toss in five-, seven- and nine-beat measures, often scattering the rhythmic elements among three or four players in a single measure. They never lost the thread.

Harmonically, the quartets are fascinating as they reflect Bartok's own ambivalence about tonality and dissonance. After all, he studied composition with 19th-century German Romantics like Liszt. But he wanted to find a 20th-century musical language that reflected the pungency of his Eastern European roots. As the Emersons played all six quartets with their customary accuracy in intonation, the audience could trace Bartok's progression from spiky dissonances that were basically there for seasoning, to a more profound use of dissonance for emotional effect. He gets close to atonality, but (and this is why I love Bartok so much) never forgets that our human ears and minds want the music to go somewhere, to experience that tension and release that comes from tightening the harmonic screws until they come out the other side.

Bartok achieves that most effectively in the fourth, fifth and sixth quartets, when his compositional command reaches new levels of maturity. In the fourth, seemingly an exploration of how many sounds a string quartet can make, a special glory of the Emersons' performance was the way they brought such clarity to the fleet, intricate, yet muted, second movement, which interweaves chromatic phrases so densely. In the fifth, a moment to cherish came in the second movement when the dissonances gave way to a quiet, almost religious chorale, which the Emersons turned into a moment of quiet grace. Another came in the central scherzo, where the intricate rhythms sounded so natural I expect the entire audience might have been tapping its collective feet in nine- and ten-beat segments. And the Emersons found the perfect deadpan humor in the finale, with its wheezy little town-band tune.

They outdid themselves in the sixth quartet, written in 1939, with its clear references to fascists marching into his native Hungary and his own premonitions of death. The finale of this quartet, with its long, aching, musical sighs, was something to treasure.

Harvey Steiman

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