The 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was recently
commemorated through a variety of cultural events. In Canada's capital,
this involved performances of several works by Bela Bartok, including
all of his string quartets.
These six quartets rank among the 20th century's most extraordinary
and beautiful chamber music, arguably on a par with Beethoven's late
masterpieces in the genre and Bach's solo Cello Suites. As such,
collectively they stand among man's greatest achievements in art music.
Bartok composed in this medium right through his musical career: two
juvenile string quartets were apparently lost, and he had plans for a
seventh at the time of his death. All six quartets are complex, challenging
works, and seldom performed - certainly they are rarely performed together.
All the more incentive to seize the Orion String Quartet's traversal
over two rainy mid-October nights at the Dominion-Chalmers United Church,
a massive, gothic-inspired hall with fine acoustics.
The Orion's recital began with great promise. An outstanding rendition
of the 1908 First Quartet launched their first evening, although it began
so slowly as to suggest an overly refined or reverent approach. As it
unfolded, however, and as both nights' performances showed, these players
are prone to nothing of the kind. The music's occasional aggressiveness
was, in fact, well in hand, and the Orion's members also proved well
equipped to brave the quartets' intonation, harmonic and ensemble
The uncommonly drawn-out opening to the First illustrated what became
clear on both evenings: namely, that these quartets can accommodate a
wide diversity of readings, calling on worthy ensembles to plumb Bartok's
rich material for their particular take on its musical magic. This the
Orion Quartet achieved time and again, casting unexpected light on a
variety of passages that lesser ensembles might play through without
The recital continued with fine performances of the Second and Fourth
quartets, displaying a rare level of artistry that showed why these works
are seldom performed - yet also the gold that a first-rate quartet can
mine from Bartok's pages. This was so even with the Fourth Quartet's
famous Allegro pizzicato, which, plucked throughout, is one of the most
remarkable movements for string quartet ever composed - and, dare it be
said, among the most challenging pieces of music anywhere, and so very
thrilling when well rendered.
The Orion's first and second violin responsibilities are swapped between
Daniel and Todd Philips, brothers who play Stradivarius instruments with
great distinction (including in a notable recording of Alfred Schnittke's
Moz-Art, for Two Violins). At the start of the second evening, younger
brother Todd announced a switch in the program that placed Bartok's last
two quartets in their order of composition.
The recital began with the Third, the briefest and perhaps most approachable
of the set. Its performance was technically flawless: not a note was
missed, flubbed or mis-intoned, and its wealth of tension, vigour and
drama were all well in evidence. Even so, the enchantment to propel it
past a well-executed traversal proved elusive, and its sometimes harsh
yet always rich poetic core was never conjured quite fully.
This, precisely, is what the Orion delivered immediately afterwards,
with the dynamically impressive five-movement Fifth. The longest of
the quartets, along with the First, this is music of great eventfulness,
displaying Bartokian ferocity alternating with moments of brash humour;
accelerated speeds that contrast with affecting dolce passages; and
pacing convoluted by a wealth of central European polyrhythms of the
kind one associates with Bartok, the master ethnomusicologist. The
Orion's rendering did justice to all of these with an inspired performance
by turns solemn and sprightly, earning them a delighted standing ovation
from the usually reserved Ottawa audience.
The round of quartets ended with a fine performance of the Sixth, a
mostly sombre work Bartok composed in 1939, during a period of great
personal difficulties. His mother had died, war and tyranny loomed
ominously for Hungary, for all of Europe, and the composer was coming
to terms with having to leave his beloved homeland, never to return.
'Live' experience of this music brings into sharp focus the central
place of the viola in several Bartok quartets, and very much in this
final one. The plaintive opening solo, a mesto (sad) theme that turns
into the core of the Sixth, was articulated with delicious anguish by
the Orion's Steven Tenenbom - whose playing on both evenings deserves
a far stronger accolade than any single, brief mention. Timothy Eddy's
exuberant cello playing was no less impressive, filling the hall on both
nights with suggestions about the work that, given the time and incentive,
Bartok might have created for the solo instrument.
The Orion Quartet has toured all of Beethoven's works in the genre,
and recorded string quartets by Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Debussy, and a
long list of living, mainly US composers. Clearly, they are also well
at home with Bartok, having delivered compelling readings throughout.
Their strongest suit, to this ear, is in measuring up to and even
excelling with the ensemble challenges that these chamber works present.
This outstanding round of performances was among the most notable to
grace Ottawa's musical stages in a decade. Two nights of the Orion
Quartet's Bartok was music for one's very, very short list.