Saturday, February 15, 2020

Mozart and Bartók Quartets for February’s Second Sunday

The Zelter Quartet: l-r Allan Hon, Nao Kubota, Kevin Tsao, Kyle Gillner.


Zelter Quartet, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

If any major work of Mozart should torpedo glib accusations of chocolate boxyness, it’s his String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K. 428, the third of the six “Haydn Quartets” composed between 1782 and 1785, and published that same year as his Op. 10 with a dedication to the older master. While the last of the set, No. 19 in C major K. 465, has acquired the nickname “Dissonance”, it might almost as well be applied to No. 16, where the bare, angular unison opening to the first movement, and the slithering chromaticisms at the start of the second, are only the most obvious marks of an inquietude that pervades the whole work.

The young Zelter Quartet (Kyle Gillner and Kevin Tsao, violins; Nao Kubota, viola; Allan Hon, cello) are all current or past students from USC Thornton School of Music, but their performance of the Mozart at the second “Second Sunday” recital of the year sounded as if they had been playing together for decades, rather than months or years. With their seemingly effortless precision and blend, quite light use of vibrato, and urgent tempi, the work was airborne from start to finish.

Mozart in 1782, painted by Joseph Lange.
After the welcome repeat of the first movement exposition, the development was as tight as a coiled spring, and the drive back into the recapitulation had a kinetic inevitability, though with careful observance of the quarter-measure rests with which Mozart interrupts progress. The “slow” movement isn’t, really, being marked Andante con moto, but in this performance it seemed tugged forward a little too much (exposition repeat again observed).

There was no let-up in the tension in the remaining two movements, so that the whole performance came in at an exceptionally fast 26 minutes; the Zelter did have a habit of clipping phrase-ends, though, which added a touch of what felt like glibness. This is one of those works where Mozart marks both halves of the first and second movements to be repeated, and when observed, this can give the piece additional grandeur and spaciousness without descending into longueurs, as may be heard on this YouTube performance.

The other work was Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 Op. 17, Sz. 67, BB 75, composed between 1915 and 1917. The Moderato first movement shares some of the haunted, ominous quality of the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, written a few years earlier, and the Zelter Quartet mastered its restless, discursive nature, building to a gripping account of the central climax and then giving full value to the sense of suspended animation in its conclusion, so that it had a kind of broken-backed, inconclusive quality, against which the the second movement reacts violently. 

This is marked Allegro molto capriccioso, and is indeed by turns skittish and driven, with constant changes of dynamic, rhythm, time-signature, and string-playing techniques; Bartók spatters the score with expressive markings to power what sometimes sounds like a caged thing twisting this way and that to escape. The climax is a torrential prestissimo in 6/4 time that slams into the final ff unisons like that cage door being shut.

Bela Bartók.
So far, so extremely impressive, but… and it was a big “but.” Bartók concludes the quartet with a Lento slow movement, and the Zelter Quartet did not play it. There’s no denying that the first two movements alone do form a powerful and seemingly balanced diptych—and the audience duly acclaimed the highly accomplished performance of them that it heard—but the haunted, ambiguous finale entirely subverts their effect, and to omit it subverted equally Bartók’s intentions.

The distinguished musicologist Mosco Carner wrote (Chamber Music, ed. Alec Robertson, Penguin, 1957, p. 232) that “… the Second Quartet is a fully integrated work… so homogeneous, rounded, and poetic in utterance,” while in a more recent radio talk Stephen Johnson remarked that “this quartet required an unusual effort of concentration… [it was] an important stage in Bartók’s self-discovery as a composer,” spelling out the nexus of circumstances, personal, social and political, as well as purely musical, that made the completion of the quartet so protracted and hard-won.

So is the first duty of performers to their audience or to the composer whose work they are performing? It doesn’t have to be either/or, and it’s important not to be too precious about excerpting: of course there’s no reason for players not to, say, extract a single movement from a suite to add variety to a program, or round it off with an attractive encore: it depends on how serious and homogeneous the entire multi-movement work is.

But in this instance it just seemed an act of vandalism to truncate a work as profound, complex, and interconnected as Bartók’s Second String Quartet on the Procrustean bed of the “Second Sunday” series’ running-time. If that had to be done, then why not play a shorter piece instead? Given how technically fine was the Zelter Quartet’s performance of the first two movements, I hope we can hear the whole work from them on another occasion. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, February 9, 2020, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performers: Classical Crossroads; Mozart: Wikipedia; Bartók: Britannica.

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