A Thrilling, Chilling Bartok Triptych From the Chiara String Quartet
Every string quartet worth their salt eventually get around to the Bartok cycle, Chiara String Quartet cellist Gregory Beaver hastened to remind the sold-out crowd at National Sawdust this past evening. “Because we’re crazy,” he added sheepishly. This extremely ambitious, relatively young (mid/late 20s) ensemble’s take on Bartok’s string quartets stands apart from what the rest of their colleagues are doing in that they’ve been playing all six of these iconic works from memory. A fluke of rehearsal became a lightning bolt of inspiration. – the group discovered by accident that the most difficult passages, which they’d had to shed until they had them in their fingers, enabled more chemistry than the parts they were reading off the page. And much as the quartet’s new album, Bartok By Heart, bristles with all sorts of electric moments, watching this group play Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 was even more transcendent.
There’s an argument that every civilized home should have at least a few recordings of the late Beethoven string quartets. For the sake of argument, here’s another: everyone, civilized or not, ought to experience the entire Bartok cycle in concert at least once.
Why? This music is as relevant – never mind cutting-edge – now as it was a hundred years ago, or more (the relatively rarely played String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1909). This evening’s themes included but were hardly limited to heartbreak, war, exile, loss and bereavement. And to illustrate just to clever Bartok’s harmonizations of folk tunes from his native Hungary, to Turkey, to North Africa were, Beaver introduced the program with a snippet of one of the ancient Magyar folk songs that the composer collected early in his career as a proto-Alan Lomax. Later, offering some insight into the night’s final piece, String Quartet No. 5, violist Jonah Sirota entreated the crowd to pay close attention to the piece’s concluding movement and the “delicious” series of chords that he clearly couldn’t wait to sink his fingers into.
The uneasy, verging-on-microtonal harmonies unravel so kaleidoscopically that there’s no end how fascinating this material is. Bartok wasn’t a string player, but he knew these instruments inside out and was generous to the extreme with virtuoso moments for everyone. Second violin seldom gets to have as much white-knuckle, intense fun as Hyeyung Julie Yoon had with the slithery slides in the rather vindictively matter-of-fact second movement of String Quartet No. 1. Out of the many, many challenges first violinist Rebecca Fischer had to pull off, possibly the most striking was how deftly she bounced her bow off the strings to provide stark high harmonics during the third movement of No. 5, the warped ghost dance where the whole group was forced to the limits of their extended technique.
Other riveting moments took shape less sharply and immediately but no less forcefully. The subtext of the first quartet seemed in this context less of a lovelorn lament and more of a cynical, I-told-you-so kissoff. The third, its horrified staccato growing as troops amassed along the border, was dynamically a world apart from heavy metal but no less ghoulish. And the dirge that ties up Quartet No. 5 came across as a cavatina that was arguably the most conversational passage of the entire evening. The crowd responded with three standing ovations before jazz started wafting through the room ,softly, as it had before the show. They’re playing the even-numbered quartets in the six-quartet cycle back at National Sawdust tomorrow night; advance tickets are gone, but $30 day-of-show cover is still a bargain for how this group delivers the material.