by Robert Leeper
California's Calder Quartet appeared Saturday night at the Met Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, the first in a series of programs pairing Bartók's string quartets with music by contemporary composers.
Completed in 1909, Bartók's Quartet No. 1 bridges his early days writing in the the late Romantic style with his interest in his country's native folk music. The opening descends from the chromatic harmony of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, while the movements that follow steadily speed up—incorporating a more rhythmic, angular style that reflects Bartók's renewed energy and confidence.
The Calder Quartet adopted Bartók's acidic style, and conveyed the dark, searching expression of the opening bars to great effect, segueing into incredibly impassioned highs and dark growling lows. Throughout the majority of the performance, however, one wanted a more aggressive edge from most of the group—the exception being cellist Eric Byer, whose tonal refinement, contrasted with saw-like bowing, found the most idiomatic interpretive ground.
Peter Eötvös' Korrespondenz (1992) presents a musical dialogue between Leopold Mozart and his famous son. The narrative—in the form of written letters—is set in Paris, where Wolfgang has become a 22-year-old star while continually recieving unhelpful advice from his father. In the midst of their correspondence, Wolfgang's mother dies.
The quartet was arranged with the viola and first violin on the audience's left, cello and second violin on the right. The viola represented Wolfgang and the cello Leopold, while the violins represented spectral ghosts present as the two conversed. What ensued was a marvelously textured quartet that wordlessly set the letter's texts. (Though the text is printed in the score, the audience could not see it.) The string writing conveyed all you might expect from a strained relationship between a father and son—there was joy and beauty as the bows arced across the strings, amusement as they plucked, sadness as they whispered.
The evening ended with a dramatic rendition of Bartók's Quartet No. 5. The atmospheric harmonies of the "night music" second and fourth movements created enchanting bookends for the central scherzo, derived from Bulgarian rhythms of nine and ten beats, which seem to careen forward from one measure to the next. The opening and closing movements can seem jerky in the hands of some ensembles, but Calder simply conveyed the material, with each new theme seeming to emerge with a sense of inevitability.
The quartet brought youthful excitement and style to their performance, making the rest of their Met Museum series an absolute must-see. Future performances in their Bartók cycle will feature David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors on November 1, and violinist Iva Bittová on November 22; tickets for all performances can be found here.