At one time Béla Bartók was the epitome of musical modernism. During his compositional career, Bartók wrote hard-edged, sharp-cornered, and utterly unsentimental music in every genre, but his strongly argued and powerfully shaped string quartets were once considered the twentieth century’s preeminent body of chamber music. Composed between 1908 and 1939, Bartók’s six quartets represent the composer at his most compelling, his most characteristic, and his most uncompromising. Although the prestige of Schoenberg’s atonal serialism and Shostakovich’s socialist realism ended the ascendancy of Bartók’s angular modernism, these might be mere fashions. In the long run, Bartók may reemerge as the most enduring of musical modernists.
If that happens, it will be in no small part due to the efforts of the Takács Quartet. Formed in Budapest in the 1970s, based in Boulder since the 1980s, and joined by an English first violinist and an English violist in the 1990s, the Takács combines clean textures and lucid interpretations with strong rhythms and a slightly sweet, almost acidic tone. Its 1998 recording of Bartók’s six string quartets rightfully won a Gramophone Award and a Grammy nomination. More important, the works are still in its stage repertoire, and on Sunday, February 20, the Takács Quartet will perform all of Bartók’s string quartets in Rackham Auditorium. The performance will start at 4 p.m. and will end about four hours later, after six quartets and two extended intermissions. If this concert doesn’t alter local opinion on the merits of Bartók’s quartets, nothing will.
Bartók composed his six string quartets between the ages of twenty-seven and fifty-eight, and together they tell the story of his compositional life during those years. The First is a hugely ambitious work, opening with a sinuous chromatic fugue and closing with a wildly dancing Presto. The Second starts graceful, grows brutal, and ends in desolation. The Third is the most rigorous and the most gnomic. The Fourth is fast and tough in its outer movements and evocative and even sensual in its central movement. The Fifth is the tightest in its outer movements, the hardest in its central movement, and the sexiest in its slow movements. The Sixth is in four movements held together by a theme of sublimated sorrow, profound resignation, and somber tranquillity.