Hungarian composer Bela Bartok [1881-1945] wrote six string quartets. Together with those of Shostakovich they are the most popular 20th century string quartets by far.
I am going to discuss quartet No. 1, written in 1909, which is in three movements, to be played without a break.
The opening to the first movement of this quartet is one of my favourites. In my opinion, no composer has ever said so much, with so few notes, to begin a string quartet. Some of the melody had already appeared in his Violin Concerto No. 1. Bartok’s sparse, slightly dissonant introduction is just perfect. It opens with two violins and takes its time to bring in the viola and cello. There is such warmth and abstract character here. The cello starts to assert itself until we have several slight crescendos. After a time, the dynamics cut back to the two violins. Then it is into powerful chords, first with one violin, and then two, answering the call. A new section quickly emerges, with a lyrical passage. Some more abstraction follows before it moves into a recapitulation of the first theme, which is developed, all the time retaining the dissonance. A breathtaking passage of chords follows before the music drops away to nothing.
The second movement begins in a very sparse space. The violins are playful, but Bartok-playful, which is a little cheeky. A melody develops out of this formless passage. Now the cello enters with thumping noises; the melodies continue. The feeling becomes quite intense. A solo cello passage brings the mood back to lyrical again. There are some crescendos but the composer keeps them in check. Again the solo cello thumps us back into the lyricism. A violin in the high register takes over and we are almost back in the first movement. It is joined by the second violin to conclude the movement.
The final movement opens with a flourish, interspersed with solo cello. The violin leads into a brief pause. Then there is an intensely rhythmic passage, very dynamic. This is followed by a self-mocking passage, quite atonal; strange music. The mocking continues as a lyrical section briefly emerges, followed by some intense moments which slowly drop the dynamics. Another brief pause leads into a passage of racing tempo with spikey interjections. This movement is proving to be quite a journey through many different emotions, some sections lasting only last a few bars. An extended, jaunty dance-like passage leads into a period of brief chaos and another set of crescendos and more chaos. This is followed by another lyrical passage, which is very beautiful. This descends into chaos for one more time as we move towards a noisy conclusion on some strong chords. Brilliant quartet!
This quartet 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. 1 on a number of single CD sets but as the complete sets are so reasonably priced I suggest you take a chance!
Listenability: Stunning early modern quartet.