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.