BARTOK, MY FATHER
Thursday July 15, 2021
The rationale behind this digital broadcast was to spread far and wide something other than the pandemic. Constraints on the Flinders Quartet’s touring schedule ensured that many of its admirers would miss out on this program concerning the life and music of Bartok as seen through the eyes of his son, Peter. Hence the MDCH taking this venture into its packed schedule. In fact, the real mover and shaker in this enterprise appears to have been actor Richard Piper, who apparently made contact with Peter Bartok before his death early last December. Quoting from his own correspondence and from the book that gave this recital its title, Piper provided the filling between performances of some Bartok scraps, as well as the mighty Quartet No. 5 of 1934.
The actor’s contribution to this entertainment lies outside my purview; suffice it to say that the autobiographical excerpts slotted in deftly with the whole quartet movements, the last piece of the evening’s playing suitably celebratory. Piper seemed upset at one stage when dealing with the composer’s death, but that’s understandable; in the descriptions by Peter Bartok, the great composer’s American years appeared to be a welter of poverty, dislocation and illness. Well, there’s little doubt about the last, but Bartok was frail life-long. As for his living circumstances, interested parties in America have been anxious to downplay any suggestions of penury, although those of us brought up with Agatha Fassett’s The Naked Face of Genius would tend to differ. Certainly, the country of refuge, in particular its scholarly institutions, treated him poorly but, as far as European refugees in general during this period, that story is not uncommon.
Three of the small pieces inserted between readings came from the 44 Duos for Two Violins of 1931. Folk tune arrangements intended for pedagogical purposes, these are some streets away from the composer’s heftier products and these three performed for us begin the third volume of the four-tome series. First violin Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba and second Wilma Smith accounted for No. 26, Teasing Song, with lots of fervour, rather more loud than the score suggests. Further along the night, the following Limping Dance was transposed for Helen Ireland’s viola and Zoe Knighton’s cello; this is a brief melody of no particular distinction but Bartok spikes it with plenty of sforzandi – 38 across the piece’s 30 bars. For the most part, these didn’t register – there must have been a momentary haze over my acoustic radar.
The third duo, Sorrow, has an introduction and mirroring postlude, the melody appearing twice – once simply outlined in the first violin, later given more intense handling by the second violin’s use of double stops. This made for a moving experience after Piper’s reading of accounts to do with Bartok’s last days and death. But then, of the three duos, it gave the players most meat to deal with, musically and temperamentally.
The exercise’s real focus lay with the Fifth Quartet. After a burst from Piper reading Peter Bartok’s early reminiscences about being his father’s boy-son-student, those trademark unison/octave B flats at the Allegro‘s opening made their usual stentorian effect, but some cracks started to appear early. The octave work between violins at bars 8 to 13 sounded untrue in intonation; Ireland’s viola sounded just as unhappy at bar 52, although a restatement-of-sorts at bar 70 was more secure; Knighton made little impression up until some splendidly carrying trills cutting through at bars 79 to 81. Despite all four performers showing tempo and dynamic control, the violins still showed discrepant across bars 87 to 96, an all-too-exposed passage over the lower strings’ overlapping ostinati. For sure, you could hear other places over this movement where the violins collaborated effectively – but that made the unfortunate moments all the more prominent.
Following verbal pictures of Bartok’s devotion to nature, forests in particular, the twitchy premonitions of night music beginning the Adagio molto gave way to those unexpected sustained chords from the three supporting players under Pavlovic-Hobba’s isolated chromatic motifs. This brief movement moved past without grief, even if it could have gained from a more meditative pace at the Largo rounding-out, and more care/precision across the segment’s crisis: the Piu lento beginning at bar 35.
Following a description of Bartok and Kodaly conducting their folk-song recording across Central-Eastern Europe (and beyond), the Flinders hit the mellifluously off-centre 4+2+3/8 Scherzo and made more of this set of pages than anything previous, coming to an early high-point in a riveting burst of vehemence at bar 30, and then some excellent performance diplomacy at the movement’s Trio, Pavlovic-Hobba making a marvellous surging creature of his melodic responsibility. The series of duets during the repeat starting at 71 sounded unhelpfully flabby but lapses of that kind were mercifully few and brief.
World War 2 arrived and Bartok left Hungary for America, a life-crisis that fitted in well with the ensuing Andante, which is the work’s fraught heart. After a successful short crescendo complex, the arrival point at bar 60 and after would have impressed more with greater uniformity of attack. Further on, both violins were too loud in the disposition of fabric importance at bar 82’s Tranquillo, although this imbalance could not erase the extraordinary beauty of this movement’s last phase.
Paul’s reunion with his parents in New York and their subsequent life there was covered, including several unpleasant vignettes, before the Allegro vivace finale started. I found much of this movement pretty rough around the edges, and it was hard to discern viola and cello at many places. Still, rays of light broke through, like the lightness of being at bar 485’s Allegretto capriccioso and the efficiently quavering block chords beginning at bar 673. But it is a furious slog, with precious few breaks and the final bars impressed as hard won – for Bartok, the players, and us.
Then came the end of the war, the composer’s swift succumbing to leukaemia, and death in September 1945, followed by the Sorrow Duo No. 28. Then, as a sort of summation, the Flinders musicians capped the celebration with the second movement, Allegro molto capriccioso, from the String Quartet No. 2 – an affirmative statement coming from the composer’s mid-life point, even if also mid-World War I. Here, the music-making (on a large scale) was at its most cogent and bitingly clear, a reading that got more engaging as it moved past. Its positioning was excellent, displaying Bartok at his energetic best. Yet, taking the program as a whole, the players did not sound comfortable with each other. Of course, rehearsal time would have been limited, given Melbourne’s unfortunate pandemic situations; but it’s clear that, even if these musicians have known each other for years, they have much work to do in becoming a convincing composite ensemble.