The Chiara Quartet concluded their complete Bartok cycle this past Saturday at Riverside Recital Hall. From the moment cellist Gregory Beaver began speaking about String Quartet no. 2, I could tell that it was going to be an staggeringly wonderful evening.
When recitals containing contemporary styles of music are presented in a quasi lecture recital format, audience members can become fully engaged in an unfamiliar style of music they may not otherwise have experience with. The quartet’s ability to interact with the audience and give approachable musical context to an otherwise heavy and dense programme was remarkable. Prior to the second quartet, a short recording of Arabic folk music indicative of that which Bartok studied on his North African trip was played. Having a raw and real musical example of the type of folk music Bartok was inspired by truly set the tone for the brooding and tumultuous first and third movements, which the Chiara Quartet achieved flawlessly. The dark undertone achieved in these movements also carried through the folk-like percussive second movement that was quintessentially Bartok. The effect that their interpretation and performance had on the audience was most obvious in the pizzicatos concluding the final movement. Here, the cello and viola kept the audience suspended in a silent and captivating trance of uncertainty.
Bartok’s use of arch form was described in String Quartet no. 4, and gave a clear guideline of what to listen for in this five-movement structure. Through this work the quartet was truly able to display their seemingly endless range of tone production, varying from raw percussive tone in the first and fifth movements, to cantabile espressivo in the third movement, to the softest and clearest pianissimo in the second movement.
The evening concluded with Bartok’s 6th String Quartet, which was described as being different from the others. Though, since the others are all vary from one another stylistically and in terms of character, it was eventually decided that it was ‘truly completely different from the others.’ Its distinctiveness in comparison to the earlier quartets was evident through the unique form and quality of each movement within the context of a traditional four-movement structure. From the gypsy street band in the second movement, to the uninhibited ‘R-Rated’ Burlesque, the Chiara Quartet impeccably evoked the real-life sounds, which Bartok’s music quotes so frequently.
Overall, the ensemble was impeccable, and the passing of melodic lines between instruments was so effective it was difficult to tell where one instrument began and the other began. The Chiara quartet challenged the range of tone quality and effects made possible their instruments. There were points at which couldn’t help but wondering if they heard a violin or a cimbalom. What was perhaps most impressive, was the range and variety of soft dynamic colours exploited. Even the softest pianissimo had clarity and presence that left the audience entranced in the musical experience.