BELA BARTOK – String Quartet No. 2

Hungarian composer Bela Bartok [1881-1945] wrote six string quartets. I discussed his first quartet in September 2016. Today I’m going to have a look at SQ No. 2 which was composed between 1915-1917 and is in three movements.

The first movement is particularly poignant and beautiful. It opens with a whisper of pure abstract mood, with very few melodic phrases. There is one motif which is stated and restated. Variations on this motif persist for some time. A melody slowly becomes evident and there is a flurry of activity which returns to the opening mood. A soft section produces a change; the previously mentioned motif is now invoked and is extensively examined from many standpoints. Eventually there is a brief crescendo before the volume again drops to a whisper. There is some melodic development here and much beauty. After a time it moves into a brief period of chaos which morphs into a tempo with the cello prominent. A loud statement is followed by a moderate volume and then things become quiet again. As the ending approaches there are some strong statements from the violins until the cello takes over and leads the violins to a conclusion.

This movement is filled with deep feeling; it takes you on a journey. I can only remember one motif and it appears that the passage refers to it regularly.

The second movement opens with a violin stretched against a taut rhythm; it is very busy. There are several string sound effects on show as the music surges forward. The tension is palpable as the violins engage in a terse dialogue. Eventually, a passage of call and response occurs and the rhythm is dispensed with. A solo violin proceeds over a fluid background. After a time the rhythm returns and there is another quiet section but it won’t settle. Vigorous chord interjections lead into a solo violin until the cello makes a strong statement. A quiet, chaotic mood ensues and the cello thunders in with a huge chord to finish.

The final movement, marked lento, begins with another stunning mood. This is sheer atonal beauty. There is no tempo and the individual voices seem to hang in the air, creating a profound melancholy effect. A violin begins to exert itself among the voices and brings a structure to the movement. It leads the other instruments for a while until a new mood takes over. This is similar to the movement opening, just four voices, each treading their own path. A violin phrase is picked up by each instrument in turn before the sparse mood returns; the ensemble dialogue with the first violin. The intensity rises for a moment and then recedes back into the soundscape. This is a wonderful place to be. The cello is mournful as it interacts with the violins. A violin melody eventually emerges, it’s very subdued. This violin is supported by the cello and eventually takes over and finishes on a note played twice.

The first time I heard Bartok I found him to be impenetrable, but now I can hear the beautiful craftsmanship at work. This quartet is a marvel, with many fascinating moods and musical places.

I shall repeat what I wrote in discussing SQ No. 1. The work is freely available. There are over 400 sets of the complete quartets on Amazon UK. I have it by the Tokyo Quartet on 3-CDs paired with Janacek. It features the six quartets in chronological order. This cannot be accomplished on a 2-CD set due to the lengths of the individual quartets. You can have No. 2 on a number of single CD sets but as the complete sets are so reasonably priced I suggest you take a chance!

There are several versions on Spotify and many on youtube.

Listenability: A very evocative, listenable, early modern quartet.

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