BELA BARTOK – String Quartet No. 6

Hungarian composer Bela Bartok [1881-1945] wrote six string quartets. I previously discussed his first and second quartets, in September and November 2016, respectively. This time I’m going to discuss SQ No. 6 which was his last string quartet, and is in four movements. It is worth noting that all movements are marked mesto (pensive, but sad), but the first three also have a qualifier, indicating differences within the movements.

The first movement, like all of the others, begins quietly, with plenty of emotion. A solo violin laments a slightly dissonant melody for some time. After a pause, the ensemble enters with a series of strong chords. Then we have a lot of murmurings, with not much melodic development, but beautiful nonetheless. One of the violins interjects a charming melody which is soon overwhelmed; the mood quietens. Some more entropic material occurs, at a moderate intensity; this section also lasts for a time. A strong statement by the whole ensemble introduces a whole new passage, leading into more scurrying sounds. Strings overlap and produce a slightly chaotic, although quiet, sound. There is not really a tempo but plenty of musical interest as the violins thrust forward. These hurried violins produce an abstract sound, and some melodic development takes the movement to its conclusion.

Another slow, sparse mood introduces the next movement. Quivering violins spin out a background to mournful melodies. Suddenly a motif appears and it is taken up by all of the instruments. Melodic variations abound, all played with the same rhythm, but with beautifully crafted harmonised lines. The motif is restated and the cello and a violin carry it forward. A second violin is more melodic and makes its own way. One last restatement of the motif leads to a pause. Now there is an almost banjo-like texture with string sound effects in abundance. A violin leads the way and eventually works into a recurring phrase. The motif returns, beginning in an almost stately manner but soon degenerates into a parody, with instruments criss-crossing each other. The motif is still audible but it is modified in many ways. A drop in the tempo, together with a chord change brings a new texture, still based on the motif. A short variation ends the movement.

The mesto feeling is again obvious in the the third movement. This is a very measured piece of abstraction with a slight upward direction in the various melodies. Now a mild fanfare introduces a step-like motion. Bartok deconstructs the feeling before reintroducing it. A change of key leads to further development. Now the tempo ceases and two violins lead the ensemble into another piece of abstraction. This is the heart and soul of Bartok! Some strong pizzicato, together with string sound effects, lead to a mysterious passage. This mesto is qualified with burletta, meaning ‘little joke’, which accounts for the dismissive, quirky nature of this section. Sanity eventually prevails and strong chords are alternated with strange melodies to complete the movement.

As noted, the final movement is all mesto. An almost orchestral opening features long, lamenting melodic lines. A pause reintroduces the instruments one at a time, slowly bringing about an unusual other-worldly sound. This is interrupted by some harmonised melodic lines which linger as they investigate this new atmosphere. A pause leads to some more orchestral sounds, although they are much sparser than the opening. A violin becomes prominent and the intensity rises for a time, but soon dissipates back into a minimal soundscape. Occasional violin interjections break the mood with their dissonance but a pure melody played over a pizzicato and gentle cello concludes the quartet.

This is a magnificent work, it defines Bartok for me. I remember when I first heard it, I didn’t get it, but now it just seems so right, even though it still fills me with a sense of mystery and wonder.

The quartet is freely available, and, as I have said before, there are lots of 2-CD sets with the six quartets for not much more than the price of a single CD. If you wish to hear them in order, the Tokyo Quartet performs them on a 3-CD set, together with the two fabulous Janacek quartets.

There are several versions on Spotify and many on youtube.

Listenability: A twentieth century masterpiece.

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