An Evening with Bartók-The Chiara String Quartet

Upon arriving at Riverside Recital Hall on Friday night, I was glad to see that the freezing air in Iowa City did not stop people from coming to the concert. The Chiara String Quartet performed three quartets by Béla Bartók: No.1, No.3 and No.5.

Before playing String Quartet No.1, the cellist gave a short and passionate speech about Bartók’s music and showed the audience a folk song on his iphone. It was a little out of tune, which might have seemed a little funny to music students. This tune was borrowed and harmonized by Bartók in the first quartet, which was composed between 1908 and 1909. The first movement was written after Bartok fell in love with a violinist, Stefi Geyer, who hurt him deeply by rejecting a violin concerto he composed specifically for her to perform. The painful struggling and wandering mood in the first movement were brought out well. The second and third movements seemed to be more energetic. The Chiara String Quartet presented the mood changes successfully.

String Quartet No.3 was composed in 1927. The quartet has four continuous movements, which can also be seen as one movement in sonata form. Before starting the piece, the cellist said something in Korean, which was hilarious. He then explained that in this situation, we all needed to accept the fact that we could not understand this foreign language. Surprisingly, he said that String Quartet No.3 was something we would not be able to understand, and that what we needed to do was to “sit back and hear the expression”. The performers did a good job in presenting the different characters. I was especially impressed when the cello and viola came out. The subtle rubato in their playing was heart telling.

Before String Quartet No.5, the cellist briefly described the piece for us again. The whole piece was designed in a symmetrical arch structure. The first and fifth movements are fast (Allegro and Allegro vivace), while the second and fourth movements are slow (Adagio molto and Andante). The central third movement is a scherzo, which has the form ABA. The performance was quite enjoyable. The contrasting characters in different movements created a dramatic effect. The dynamic and tempo changes in the second and fourth movements were breathtaking, and the mood of the “night music” was built up well. The opening of the second movement featured a violin solo over sustained chords. This was the most simple but the most expressive moment for me. In general, the second half of the concert was more fun to listen to. One reason was that the piece itself had more contrasting colors. Another reason was that the players seemed to be more warmed up during the second half.

Several music students discussed the physical movements of the performers after the concert. The performers moved their bodies dramatically all the time. Do these extended movements really help to create a bigger or better sound? Personally I doubt it. For instrumentalists, it is important to find the most natural way to play their instruments, because natural movements contribute to natural timbre. However, I also think performers should have the freedom to express themselves on stage and play music in their own way.

Overall, the Chiara String Quartet prepared well for tonight’s concert. The four performers had tacit understanding in timing. The balance could have been better if the violins were a bit louder, but the most important thing was that they really enjoyed Bartók’s music and presented it well to the audience.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “An Evening with Bartók-The Chiara String Quartet

  1. I too was thrilled to see that so many people came to these concerts! Being able to hear an entire Bartók cycle is a special treat and the Chiara String Quartet is one of the most highly respected SQ ensembles in the country. My own string quartet is currently working on Bartók’s first string quartet and so it was a wonderful opportunity to hear it performed live, (and we also really appreciated the feedback that we received from the Chiara in the guest masterclass). In my own research of Bartók’s first string quartet, I discovered that the first four pitches, (which are played very intimately by the first and second violins), are actually a transposition and inversion of the motif that Bartók created in his violin concerto that is meant to represent Stefi Geyer. So there is truly no mistaking that this was written with her in mind and this knowledge certainly gives context to the mood of the first movement, which Bartók himself described as a “funeral dirge.”

    Also, I personally really appreciated the conversational approach that the Chiara took in presenting these works in concert. Speaking for myself as a music student, I wasn’t thrown off at all by the “intonation” of the folk recording that Gregory Beaver played for us on his iPhone. The fact that it is “folk” implies a certain lack of formality in structure, form, and content, and I found this to actually be quite refreshing.

    Lastly, I wanted to comment on your thoughts, (and those of others), regarding the movement of the performers. It could perhaps be true that maybe some of their movements were not “necessary,” but being that I am a string player myself, I can clearly see a direct correlation between their movements and their sound production. The bow for us is our artistic voice, and how we draw it across the string combines many factors that include: placement, weight, speed, articulation, etc., (and there are myriad shades of each of these which can subsequently be combined in a variety of ways). Add to this that the impetus for many of our movements and gestures often have their roots in muscle groups that are nowhere near our hands, (i.e. muscles in our back or our core), and it makes perfect sense that movements and gestures would incorporate one’s whole being. Also, from an audience’s perspective I would ask, which performance is more “moving” — the one in which the performers move more conservatively, or the one in which the performers channel the energy and emotion of a certain work into the natural inter-working relationship of their bodies with their instruments, so as to communicate as effectively as possible? I would certainly argue the latter.

  2. It was interesting to hear your reaction to the performance of the other three string quartets! I also wanted to remark on movement in performance, though I chose not to touch upon it in my own review. As a performer, I tend to be extremely conservative with my movement at the piano. Therefore, it is generally my preference to observe performers or ensembles who incorporate little to moderate movement in their performances. When I find myself observing someone who moves excessively while playing, I feel the need to close my eyes as, for me, it detracts from the overall musical experience. Movement can enhance certain climactic moments, but in my opinion when it happens consistently it becomes somewhat redundant and unnecessary. Though there is clearly no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with regards to this debate, I certainly think it is rooted in one’s own tendencies with regards to physical movement at his or her own instrument.

  3. I feel that this dialogue is an interesting one and may be a topic that people tend to shy away from in many cases. Although I brought up the idea of movement and energy conservation in class directly after the Chiara quartet performed, I most likely did not communicate everything I was thinking. I agree that excessive movement usually detracts from a performance for me as well. I would close my eyes as well, but don’t bother to because I would just see the same image in my mind! Although I feel this way, I would be willing to change my thinking about this topic in this regard if I felt as though somebody gave me a good reason to. The idea of feeling embarrassed while watching a performance based on excessive movement is a topic that people “skate around”. Maybe this blog forum serves as an opportunity for people to communicate about this topic in a way they may not have otherwise which is an interesting idea unto itself. I enjoyed the performance by the Chiara quartet but wonder if they move so excessively while practicing. Something tells me probably not. I believe that it is important to perform the way you have been practicing and can tell in my own playing when I fail to do this. It would have been interesting to have this entire conversation in class. It would have been challenging to express our true feelings about this topic while remaining considerate and compassionate to the idea that the performers have worked hard to achieve what they have achieved even if certain excessive movements may seem unnecessary to some of us from the outside.

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